Have you ever walked into a farm supply store, asked for hay, and been offered straw instead? Have you ever accepted the offer only to discover that straw didn’t fit your purpose at all? I know I have. So, how do you know which one you need? What’s the difference between the two anyway?
Let’s take a look at straw vs hay, so you have a solid reference for the different ways you can use each of them.
Get to Know Your Bales
First of all, we have to know the difference between hay and straw. Understanding the differences will help you see why they’re often used for different thing on farms and in gardens.
Hay and straw both start life out in the fields. It’s what happens after harvest that differentiates the two of them, and there are major differences.
Hay is the dried remains of a whole plant. It refers to a tall cereal grain (like wheat or barley), grass, or occasionally a legume like alfalfa, harvested primarily as animal feed. In fact, it’s used almost exclusively to feed livestock such as horses, cows, and donkeys during the colder months. If you’re overwintering animals, hay is absolutely essential.
It’s also used to feed rabbits, and as bedding for other small animals such as guinea pigs.
After it’s cut in the field, hay is dried and bound into bales. The smaller, rectangular bales are popular with small scale homesteaders for several reasons. They’re easy to transport compared to larger bales, usually only weighing between 50 and 75 lbs. Large, round bales can weigh over 2000 pounds! They provide a lot of feed on large farms, but are obviously more difficult to transport.
Straw is the stalk of grain plants, left over after the seeds have been harvested. So, if a farmer is growing wheat for flour, he removes the grains and binds up the dry stalks as straw. This means that straw is pretty low in nutrients. While straw is bound into bales that look almost identical to rectangular hay bales, it’s not used as fodder for livestock. It might be filling to gnaw upon, but offers little nutritional value at all.
This is why straw is most often used as animal bedding in barns and hutches. The animals are less likely to try to eat it, but the straw is warming and absorbent.
So, now that you know the basic differences between hay and straw, let’s figure out which is best for your garden or homesteading project!
Gardening with Bales
Straw bale gardening is getting hugely popular these days. In fact, if you’re running to the local feed store for gardening straw, you might see that hay prices are lower. Can you save ten or twenty dollars and buy hay instead of straw?
No: absolutely not for straw bale gardening. Remember how straw is just the stalk, with the seed head removed? Well, if you replace straw with hay bales, you’ll end up growing a bale of wheat. All the seeds in the hay that provide so much nutrition to animals will sprout and grow.
Straw bale gardening works because the straw just composts, giving all its nutrients to your seeds. The bottom line to remember is that straw won’t compete with your plants, but hay will. Think of it this way: the hay will say “hey!” to your plants, and you don’t want them socializing.
Be aware that most commercially grown straw will have been treated with chemical sprays. Many farmers who grow grain and straw will be using a lot of non-organic treatments. If you’re buying straw as a growing medium, you’ll want to look for a farmer who doesn’t treat his fields with these chemicals.
I find it’s easiest to seek out small farmers who grow their own hay and grain for their own animals. They’ll often have untreated, or low-spray straw available for you. Ask around at your local farmer’s market, and you’re sure to find a few who can help you out.
Oh No! I Already Planted in Hay!
Take a deep breath. It’s not the end of the world, or the end of your garden. We can work through this.
If you’ve already bought hay bales and planted in them, then you’re committed, right? So let’s figure out how to make those hay bales work in your garden so you don’t have to start again from scratch.
Have your hay bales started to sprout yet? In a first or second cut of hay (early in the season), the seed heads might not be mature enough to sprout much, or at all. But later hay crops could sprout thousands of seeds. If you haven’t planted yet, but you’re seeing a lot of little, green hay sprouts, try spritzing the bale with a vinegar-soap-salt solution to kill the seedlings.
A solution comprised of 3 parts vinegar, 1 part liquid soap, and 2 parts saltwater should do the trick. You can safely plant your seedlings two days after spraying the bale.
If you’ve already planted seedlings, try wrapping them in plastic bags while spraying the solution mentioned above. You won’t be able to spray all the sprouting hay, but you’ll greatly reduce the hay-invasion. Keep the plastic on only long enough to spray the hay, then let your plants breathe again.
As your seedlings take root, you can gently weed out the remaining hay-growth around them. Use gloves! Grain grasses can be surprisingly sharp.
Overall though, hay tends to provide more nitrogen to your plants than straw. You will have to water more often early in the season, but once you get rid of the weeds, growing in hay can be successful.
Straw bale homes are a popular alternative housing option. Their thick walls hold in heat, and provide sturdy walls to withstand harsh weather. But can you build a straw-bale house with hay?
No. Straw bale builders are adamant on this one. You absolutely cannot replace straw with hay on this project.
Why not? They look the same. They’re both baled up into tight bricks of plant matter. Why is straw safe for building, but not hay?
The simplest answer is that hay is food. It’s full of nutrients and seeds, and is still living and changing, in a sense. Straw is stagnant. It’s just stalks, left to dry out in the field long after the hay has been baled and stored. Straw is drier, harder, and less changing than hay.
Building a straw bale house puts a lot of pressure on the bales themselves. They have to be completely dry, because moisture in straw creates heat, and that heat can combust under pressure. Hay’s natural moisture content is significantly higher than straw, though they are both dry to the touch.
If you use hay to build your bale house, the long-term pressure your hay bales will have to withstand could cause them to burst into flame. So stick with straw bales for building.
Straw vs Hay: Compost-a-bales
Both straw and hay are great additions to the compost pile. They’re brown matter, meaning they add a boost of quickly composting dead matter (carbon) to your pile. This is ideal in the summer especially, when most of your compost heap will be green matter (nitrogen).
Hay and straw are great as compost topping, as they can cover up egg shells, fruit peels, and vegetable ends to deter raiders. In fact, a top coat of hay or straw is essential if you’re trying not to attract the local raccoon to your yard.
They’re not interchangeable, though. Straw and hay have different roles in composting, so choose wisely.
Nitrogen-rich and easily compostable, hay is a great addition to your compost heap. Some people even build their compost bins out of hay bales! The bales gradually decompose into the compost heap itself.
Composting hay will add a few seeds to your bin, and you may end up with a lot of green, growing wheat plants during the summer months. Just keep turning over your compost to keep your bin from becoming a wheat field.
While it has fewer nutrients to offer, straw provides a lot of heat and neutral material to your compost bin.
Unlike hay, straw isn’t nitrogen heavy, so if you’re compost pile is full of other nitrogen-rich materials like chicken manure and grass clippings, straw is better choice. It also works well as a mulch in garden beds. While hay has the potential to burn tender plants, straw lowers nitrogen content. As such, it’s safe for seedlings and older plants alike.
And now you know the difference between straw vs hay! Whether you’re going in to buy a bale of bedding for your chickens, some feed for your goats, or the base for a new garden, you know which bales to choose.
Both hay and straw are versatile, natural, and essential additions to most homesteads. Even better, they can help you make your own home and garden a bit more sustainable as well.