I occasionally hear the confusion of non-farming folks not knowing the difference between straw and hay. It’s understandable. They see something square baled and assume it’s straw because it’s baled like the ones that their church used for their fall harvest or Thanksgiving decorations. What is the difference anyway?
There are several differences between hay and straw. First, hay and straw are harvested from different grasses. Hay can be made with any grasses that grow about a foot or taller. Some farmers will plant a field of one or two specific types of grass for hay for their livestock or for selling depending on their preference. These grasses are many such as clover, fescue, alfalfa, and even Johnson grass. Hay is frequently a mixture of these and other grasses. Straw on the other hand is harvested from processed grain fields. Straw consists mostly of stems from such grains as wheat and barley.
Secondly, because of the difference in grasses, the method used to harvest hay and straw is different. Grasses for hay are allowed to grow tall without any disturbances such as traveling livestock or machinery. Once it is fully grown, it is cut about four inches from the ground and raked into windrows. It is then allowed time to “cure” or dry out. Then it is baled into round or square bales depending on the need. The grasses of the field are then left to grow again and may be processed one or two more times that year. Straw, however, comes form an already processed field. First, the grain field is processed for the heads of the plants after they have dried and the berries are mature. Then, the stems are cut two or three inches off the ground and square baled for straw. Once the bales are removed, the field is plowed under and is ready for preparing to replant.
Finally, how hay and straw are used is different. Hay consists of the entire upper portions of the grasses. Because of this, hay contains more nutrients. Hay is used for feeding livestock of many types. Some grasses are used more frequently for certain animals. For example, alfalfa hay is popular for dairy cows and horses. Straw is used as bedding for livestock and as insulation in gardens. Since straw consists of leftover, hollow stems, it is low in nutrients. Very little nutrients were stored in the stem of the grain plants because it was all going to the head. Owners use straw to keep their animals from having to lie on the cold ground in winter. Straw is also widely used in gardens for insulating roots of plants and for choking out weeds. It is popular for this because straw contains no seeds of other plants. Contrary to what many people think, hay and straw are very different from each other.