Hay vs Straw: Two Words That Are Not Interchangeable

To write about agriculture or gardening, you will need to know the difference between hay vs straw

If you spend much time in agriculture or writing about agriculture, you will come across the terms hay and straw. To the non-agriculturally-minded person, hay and straw appear to be the same thing, but they are actually different products. Understanding the difference between hay vs straw will help you use these terms properly.

This guide will discuss the difference between hay and straw, and it will also talk about different uses of these products with animals and in gardens. This will help you know which one to buy when you need animal feed or animal bedding, so you can take better care of the livestock in your care.

Hay Vs Straw – Not the Same Thing

Hay and straw often cause confusion with one another because they perform similar tasks in animal care. Also, over the years English speakers have used the terms hay and straw interchangeably, even when they are not the same. To use these words well, you must get them clear in your mind.

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Hay: Grasses And Legumes For Animal Feed

Hay vs straw

Hay is a legume or grass that farmers use to feed their animals. It gets cut when dry and rolled or baled for storage in a barn to feed animals. 

Several different plants work as hay. These include:

  • Alfalfa
  • Bermuda grass
  • Orchardgrass
  • Timothy 
  • Clover
  • Fescue 

Each of these plants has a different nutritional profile, so farmers need to choose the right one based on the needs of their animals. 

Before baling, hay must be completely dry. Damp hay creates a fire hazard because it develops mold and bacteria that generate heat and can start fires. It also can make the animals sick if they eat it, so dry hay is vital to protecting a farm.

Choosing Hay Bales

Farmers store hay in bales that they can use when they need to feed animals. Bales can be small square or rectangular cubes or larger circular bales that can be as large as six feet in diameter. 

The smaller bales allow farmers to hand-carry feed to farm animals, and they can fit in stalls for individual feeding. Round bales require equipment to move and typically get placed in a field for herds to graze on. 

Harvesting Hay

Hay gets cut three to five times a year, whenever the grass is tall enough and dry enough to harvest. The moisture content of the hay is a key component of when people harvest it, because of the fire risk.

Farmers also harvest hay before the plants go into their seeding cycle. The leaves have more nutrition in them than the stems alone, and once the plants start to make seeds they have fewer leaves.

Hay gets stored on the farm for those seasons when the animals cannot graze in the pasture, such as during the winter or during a drought. 

Straw: Common Animal Bedding

Straw vs hay
Straw is also usually what farms use for hayrides

Straw, on the other hand, is a common animal bedding. This product is a byproduct of cereal grain farming. When farmers harvest wheat, oat, barley, rye, buckwheat, and rice, they leave behind hollow stems as a waste product, and using these stems as straw for animal bedding means less waste.

Straw weighs less than hay and tends to have a lighter color. It has no nutritional value, though it will not hurt animals if they eat some, it works quite well to provide soft bedding. Straw is also usually what farms use for hayrides, rather than actual hay.

Other Uses for Straw

While straw is a common bedding product, it is also used in other areas. You will find straw in:

  • Straw bale gardening
  • Basket making
  • Hat making
  • Thatched roofs
  • Straw mulch
  • Composting

Harvesting Straw

Because it is a byproduct of cereal grain harvesting, farmers do not have a specific harvesting method for straw. Rather, they take the waste product of wheat and other grain harvests and form the hollow stocks left behind into straw bales. 

Thus, harvesting straw does not happen. Rather, farmers harvest the cereal grains, then create the straw from what gets left behind.

Hay Vs Straw As Mulch

Gardeners and farmers can use both hay and straw as mulch. Mulch helps keep moisture in the soil while reducing the number of weeds that breakthrough. Because the terms hay and straw seem interchangeable, many gardeners think the two types of mulch are the same, but this is not true.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Straw Mulch

Straw mulch works well to insulate the soil against moisture loss and temperature changes. It adds golden color to the garden and is a light, fluffy top layer. 

However, it does have some drawbacks. Straw has a tendency to blow away and can attract rodents. It also offers little protection against weeds that are already in the garden.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Hay Mulch

Hay mulch offers quite a bit of nutrition to the soil and decomposes quickly. It helps protect against erosion because it acts like a sponge on top of the ground. Hay mulch also keeps rodents out.

On the negative side, hay mulch can bring seeds with it that can grow weeds in your garden. It also harbors slugs and snails, so you will need to watch for them while tending your garden. 

A Final Word on Hay vs Straw

Hay and straw both have agricultural and gardening uses, but they are not the same thing. Hay is considered animal feed, and farmers harvest it before the grasses began creating seeds. Straw is better used as animal bedding or mulch, as it has little nutritional value, and it is the natural byproduct of grain harvesting.

In general, both hay and straw have their uses in the world of growing plants and feeding animals. Understanding their differences will help you use the terms correctly when you talk about these. If you liked this post, you might also be interested in our on vs. upon explainer.

FAQs On Hay Vs Straw

What is the difference between straw and hay?

Straw is a byproduct of grain harvesting. This material has little nutritional value for animals, but it works well as animal bedding or in gardens to provide cover for new plants.

Hay is dried grass that farmers feed to animals. Different types of hay have different nutritional profiles, and farmers use this feed when they cannot find sufficient grass for natural grazing.

Do you use hay or straw to cover grass seed?

Most of the time, straw is the product that works best for covering grass seed. It does not contain seeds that can sprout and interfere with the new grass growth, and it is light enough to provide protection without weighing down the grass while it is germinating and sprouting.