What is the Difference Between Straw and Hay? (Plus Uses)


Do you want to know the difference between straw and hay?  If so, then you’re not alone.  I was unsure about the difference myself, so I did some digging to find out what separates the two.

So, what is the difference between straw and hay?  Straw is made from grain crops by removing the grain and chaff, while hay is made from dried grasses and legumes.  Hay is often used to feed animals, while straw is often used as bedding.  Straw can also be used as mulch, or to make compost.

Of course, straw and hay both have their best specific uses – neither one is really “better” than the other.

In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between straw and hay, including:

  • Where each one comes from
  • How each one is made
  • How each one is used

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dig in.

What is the Difference between Straw and Hay?

The main differences between straw and hay are where they come from, how they are made, and how they are used.

According to Wikipedia, straw is what is left of crops like oats, rice, and wheat after the grain and chaff are removed.  The grain (or inside of the seed) is what we eat, while the chaff is the seed casing.

grain crops
Straw is made from the stalks of grain crops, and it is what is left after the seeds are removed.

Straw can be used for animal feed and bedding, as mulch, or as an ingredient in a compost pile.  You can also use straw to make baskets or thatch roofs.

According to Wikipedia, hay is made from dried plants, such as grasses (ryegrass, fescue, etc.) or legumes (alfalfa, clover, etc.).

clover
Hay can be made from legumes like clover (shown here) or alfalfa, or from grasses.

Hay is mainly used as an animal feed.  Since hay contains the leaves and seeds of plants, it is more nutritious than straw.

Here is a table comparing straw and hay:

StrawHay
made from
grain stalks
(no seeds)
made from
dried grasses
or legumes
(has seeds
and leaves)
grain and
chaff are
removed
entire plant
is harvested
and dried
used for
animal beds,
mulch, or
compost
used for
animal feed
very drydried, but
may still be
moist
has a gold
or yellow
color
has a greenish
color

As you can see from the table above, straw has some uses that hay is not suitable for.  Let’s find out why.

Straw

Straw has more diverse uses in the garden, mainly because of the way it is made.

How is Straw Made?

Straw comes about as a result of grain production.

First, a farmer grows a grain crop, such as:

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Barley
growing oats
Straw comes from oats and other grain crops after the seeds are removed.

Next, the farmer harvests the grain crop and threshes it.  Threshing separates the grain crop into these parts:

  • Grain – this is the part of the grain crop that we eat.  It is really a dry seed, which is sometimes ground into flour (such as wheat, rice, or oat flour).
  • Chaff – this is the seed casing, which is part of the grain crop that humans cannot digest.  However, some livestock can eat chaff as fodder.
  • Straw – this is made from the dried stalks of grain crops.  Straw is basically what is left over after removing the grain and chaff from a grain crop.

Since the seeds have been removed, straw will not contain the seeds of grain crops.  If harvested carefully, straw will also not contain any seeds of weeds (undesirable plants).

What is Straw Used For?

Since straw contains very few seeds, it can be used in the garden without fear of spreading weeds everywhere.

Straw can be used as an ingredient in compost, as a type of mulch, as animal bedding (or feed), and for straw bale gardening.

Making Compost

A compost pile is where you take organic material and let it decompose into black, rich, earthy-smelling compost.

Compost
You can use straw as one of the ingredients in compost.

Straw is one ingredient you can add to a compost pile, but you can also use:

  • Grass clippings
  • Fallen leaves
  • Sawdust
  • Wood ash
  • Kitchen scraps (fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, etc.)

Given enough time, straw and other ingredients in a compost pile will decompose.  When you add compost to your garden, you add nutrients and organic material to the soil.

The nutrients in compost then become available to plants, helping them to grow.  The organic material in compost attracts beneficial organisms, such as earthworms and bacteria, which help to improve the soil.

Compost also helps to improve drainage in clay soil.  Compost is one of the first steps to keeping your soil healthy for a great garden.

You can learn more about how to make compost in my article here.

Mulch

You can also use straw as a type of mulch in your yard and garden.  When we hear the word “mulch”, we often think of the wood chips that are so common in decorative landscaping.

However, you can also use other materials as mulch, including:

  • Straw
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves

Straw has many benefits when used as mulch in the garden:

  • Insulates soil – straw helps to retain heat from the sun and air in the soil.  This keeps soil and plants warmer on cold nights, which can protect your plants from cold damage.
  • Retains moisture – a layer of straw can also prevent water from evaporating out of the soil.  This keeps soil moist and can help plants to survive a drought (or if you cannot water when you are away for an extended time).
  • Controls weeds – if you put down some straw over existing weeds, it can smother them and stop them from growing back.  It can also keep new weeds from growing by preventing them from getting air and sunlight.
weeds
Straw can be used as mulch to help control weeds.

Since it decomposes over time, straw used as mulch will eventually return its nutrients and organic matter to the soil, just like compost.

Animal Bedding or Feed

You can also use straw as animal bedding if you keep livestock.  When you need to refresh their bedding, just remove the old straw and add it to your compost pile.

Straw can also be used as animal feed in a pinch.  However, it is not as nutritious as hay, since straw does not contain the leaves or seeds of plants (that is where the nutrients are!)

Straw Bale Gardening

Finally, straw can be used as part of a straw bale gardening setup.  You can grow lots of different plants in straw bales.

The basic idea is that you water the straw bale and add some fertilizer to provide the necessary nutrients for your plants.

Throughout the season, you water and fertilize as needed.  Since the straw should contain very few seeds, you don’t really need to worry about weeding with this method.

straw
You can use straw bales to grow potatoes, tomatoes, and other crops.

The straw bale also provides a sort of “raised bed”, which makes it easier to garden with this method if you are handicapped or disabled.

When the straw decomposes, you can simply recycle it by adding it to your compost pile at the end of the growing season.

You can https://greenupside.com/you-can-grow-potatoes-in-straw-bales-heres-how/learn how to grow potatoes in straw bales in my article here.

You can learn about growing tomatoes in straw bales in my article here.

Hay

Hay is mainly used as feed for animals, since this is the main purpose of making hay.

How is Hay Made?

First, a farmer grows a grass or legume commonly used to make hay.

Some grasses used to make hay include:

  • Ryegrass
  • Timothy
  • Fescue

Some legumes used to make hay include:

  • Alfalfa
  • Clover

Next, the farmer harvests the grasses and legumes when they are still growing.  Usually, when these crops are harvested, the seeds are still present.

Then, the harvested crops are cut and dried out.  They are then made into bales and transported wherever they are needed.

alfalfa
Alfalfa (Lucerne) is one crop that can be used to make hay.

Hay bales often have more moisture than straw bales.  Unfortunately, this can lead to mold or rotting, which is not good for livestock.

In that case, you would need to use the hay for compost – but only if you can make sure any seeds will not grow!

What is Hay Used For?

Hay is mostly used as animal feed (fodder), since it contains more nutrients than straw.  If hay gets wet (or was not dried out enough), it can get moldy.

In that case, you might want to discard it, or possibly turn it into compost.  If you compost hay, remember that you may have to contend with the seeds of the grasses and legumes that were used to make the hay.

If the compost pile gets hot enough, you might be fine.  If not, you might have some serious weeds in your garden!

However, this might not be such a bad thing.  If you want to grow some cover crops (green manure) to restore nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, composting hay might turn out work just fine.

Conclusion

Now you know the main differences between straw and hay.  You also know what each one is used for, where they come from, and how they are made.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jonathon. I’m the gardening guy (not guru!) who is encouraging everyone to spend more time in the garden. I try to help solve common gardening problems so that you can get the best harvest every year!

Recent Content