What’s the difference between hay and straw?

by Gene Sumi, Homestead Education Coordinator 

straw

Bales of straw

It sort of goes like this.  A customer asks, “Do you sell bales of hay?”  My response is, “No, but we do sell bales of straw”, which is immediately followed by the question that is the title of this piece.

A bale of hay and a bale of straw may look similar and may be found together in the same places, but they are very different.  Hay is food for plant-eating animals.  Straw is used for non-food purposes.  They have other differences. 

Hay is often a tall field grass, usually a variety called Timothy.  When it is mature, the grass is cut a ground level and the whole plant; stalks, leaf blades and seed heads, are left where they fall to dry in the summer sun.  When dried, they are baled in rectangular-shaped bales, to feed animals that range from domestic animals on farms to wild animals at zoos.

timothyFlickrUrtica

Timothy, a common source of hay

Straw is somewhat of a by-product.  After cereal grain grasses, such as wheat, rye and barley have been harvested for the grain-bearing seed head, the hollow stems of these grass plants remain.  These hollow stems or straw, are baled up much like the hay in rectangular-shape bales.  The hollow stems make for good insulating material, and for centuries straw has been used in farms and stables as warm bedding for animals.  We sell straw at Homestead Gardens for spreading on the ground, as covering for lawn seed or for mulching vegetable gardens.  There are many other good uses for straw and straw bales, but not as a food staple.

Straw photo credit.   Timothy photo credit.

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