You have probably never thought to ask yourself, “What is the difference between straw and hay?” In fact, most people tend to use the words synonymously. I myself was surprised that there is a difference between the two, but that was no surprise – gardening and farming were not part of my daily life until several years ago. To a farmer, who has farmed for a lifetime, hay and straw are two completely different products that each have a very specific purpose.
As a kid, I would joke when someone said, “Hey!”
“Hay is for horses,” I would respond with the know-it-all sass of a ten year old.
It turns out that phrase, “hay is for horses,” has a second line: “straw is for houses”. The California Straw Builders Association used the phrase to clearly identify the difference between hay and straw.
Hay is used for feeding horses, cattle, goats, and sometimes rabbits. It is usually made up of alfalfa or clover, and may also have rye, brome, orchard and timothy grasses. Hay is a lifeline for farmers that have grazing animals, especially if their pasture is not adequate in nutrition. The cut grasses are formed into hay bales to ensure that all the moisture is released and no molds form, before being fed to livestock.
As the saying continues, “straw is for houses.” Straw is used for bedding, housing, and crafts. After the harvest of staple crops like wheat, barley, and oats, straw is what is left over. It is cut, dried and formed into bales. Straw is ideal for bedding, due to its lack of nutritional value and hollow grasses – it is fluffy and not tempting enough for livestock to eat.
Without getting crazy and diving into their chemical properties, that is the whole difference between hay and straw. If you are looking at unmarked bales, a quick determination can be made by feeling the weight – a bale of hay will be heavier than a bale of straw.
Gardeners take a particular interest in straw as a mulch for their garden. Straw provides ground cover and moisture control around growing plants. It can block out the weeds, while also keeping moisture in the ground during the drier summer days. Straw will compost rather quickly, about 5-6 weeks, forming a soft layer throughout the garden.
People that are fond of growing potatoes will sometimes prefer to fill in the trench of the growing seedlings with straw instead of loose soil. This gives the potatoes ample room for growth, and they are much easier to find when you dig them up.
Check out the Seattle Farm Co-op for locally sourced hay and straw!
Written by Natalya Roberts, local Seattle urban farmer, Seattle Farm Co-op volunteer and lover of the natural world.