The Difference Between Straw & Hay (3 Things To Know)

Straw and hay have some things in common – but they’re not the same. Both have their uses in a garden or on a farm – but it’s important to know which is which.

So, what is the difference between straw and hay? Straw is left over from grain crops (like wheat) after you remove the grain and chaff. Straw has no seeds, and it is used for animal bedding, mulch, or compost. Hay has seeds, is used as animal feed, and is made from dried grasses or legumes (like alfalfa).

Straw and hay each have specific uses where they work best. Neither one is really “better” than the other.

In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between straw and hay, including where they come from, how they are made, and how they are used.

Let’s get started.

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What Is The Difference Between Straw & Hay?

The main differences between straw and hay are:

  • where they come from
  • how they are made
  • how they are used
Straw is dry and has low nutritional value for animals. However, it has many uses in the garden.

The table below summarizes the differences between straw and hay.

made from
grain stalks
like wheat,
oats, & rice
(no seeds)
made from
dried grass
or legumes
(has seeds
and leaves)
grain and
chaff are
entire plant
is harvested
and dried
used as beds
for animals,
mulch, or
used for
animal feed
has low
has high
very drydried, but
may still be
has a gold
or yellow
has a gold
or greenish

Note that both straw and hay are sometimes used in construction for erosion and sediment control.

What Is Straw?

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

grain crops
Straw is made from the stalks of grain crops. It is what is left after removing the seeds.

In other words, we intended to grow grain (like wheat) for food, and straw is just one of the leftover byproducts. Straw can be made from multiple different crops, but most or all of the seeds are removed.

Straw has many potential uses, including:

  • animal feed and bedding (there is not much for nutrition, but it gives animals something to eat)
  • mulch (it retains moisture and prevents weeds by denying them sunlight)
  • an ingredient in compost (it breaks down and adds organic material to soil)

You can also use straw in crafting (to make baskets) or basic construction (to make thatch roofs).

What Is Hay?

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

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

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

You can make hay from many different crops, but some are more nutritious than others. For example, according to the American Association of Equine practicitioners, hay made from legumes (like alfalfa) is higher in protein, energy, calcium, and vitamin A than hay from grasses.

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


Straw has more diverse uses in the garden than hay. This is mainly due to the way it is made (and what is removed from it during processing).

How Is Straw Made?

Straw comes about as a result (byproduct) of grain production. The main goal of growing grain crops is to harvest the grain for human or animal consumption.

growing oats
Straw comes from oats and other grain crops after the seeds are removed.

Here are the steps involved in making straw. First, a farmer grows a grain crop, such as:

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Barley

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

  • Grain – this is the part of the grain crop that humans or animals 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 whatever remains after removing the grain and chaff from a grain crop.
wheat with grains
The seeds of wheat and other grains must be removed to make straw.

The straw is then packed into bales, which are tied with twine. These bales are then sold for various purposes.

What Is Straw Used For?

Since straw contains very few (if any) seeds, it can be used in the garden without fear of spreading weeds (or grain crops) everywhere. If the seeds were not removed from straw, it would not be nearly as useful in the garden.

dandelion weeds
Hay has seeds that can cause weeds to grow in your garden – but straw does not.

(Imagine spreading out straw in your garden to grow potatoes and getting a wheat crop later on!)

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

Using Straw To Make Compost

A compost pile is where you put organic material and let it decompose into black, rich, earthy-smelling 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 (this adds lots of nitrogen)
  • Fallen leaves
  • Sawdust (this adds lots of carbon)
  • 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.

You can use kitchen scraps and yard waste, along with straw, to make compost for your garden.

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.

However, making compost isn’t the only use for straw. We can also use it as mulch while it is still fresh – before it decomposes.

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Straw Mulch

You can 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.

potato plants
When potato plants get tall enough, you can hill them with straw instead of just using soil.

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 it 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.
Straw can be used as mulch to help control weeds.

You can also use straw for hilling potatoes. You can use it as an alternative to soil, or you can use alternating layers if you wish.

(You can learn more about hilling potatoes and why to do it in my article here).

baby potato plant
When this potato plant gets a little bigger, we can pile up straw around its stems (hilling) to prevent green tubers.

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

Straw For 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.

The used bedding will decompose and add nutrients (such as nitrogen) to your compost pile. The new straw will keep things clean (for a little while at least!)

You can use straw as bedding for chickens and other animals. Put the used bedding in your compost pile.

Straw can also be used as animal feed in a pinch. However, straw it is not as nutritious as hay.

This is because straw does not contain the leaves or seeds of the plants that it comes from. The leaves and especially the seeds are where the nutrients are!

If you do use straw as feed, remember that oat straw is more nutritious than wheat and other types of straw.

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 (including tomatoes and potatoes).

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

The basic idea is that you water the straw bale and add some fertilizer to provide the necessary nutrients for your plants. Just remember that straw bales dry out fast, so you will need to pay careful attention to watering!

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.

The straw bale also acts as a sort of “raised bed”, which makes it easier to garden with this method if you are handicapped or disabled. Of course, you can also put a straw bale up on top of a raised bed – you can learn more about raised beds here.

According to the Oklahoma State University Extension, you will need to replace straw bales every year, since they will decompose quickly during the course of a season.

However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 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 learn how to grow potatoes in straw bales in my article here, and you can learn about growing tomatoes in straw bales in my article here.

ripe tomatoes on vine
Do you grow tomatoes in your garden? Well, you can use straw as mulch for them!

If you are interested in using straw for any of the purposes mentioned above, you can buy it online in bales from Ace Hardware.

Why Is Straw Better Than Hay?

Straw is better than hay in certain situations. For example, if you want to garden and avoid growing weeds. Since straw has no seeds from weeds, it has a wider variety of uses in the garden.

Although you can use hay as mulch or compost, this does present a problem. That is, the seeds (from grain or weeds) in hay might germinate in your garden and compete with your other plants.

hay bales
Hay bales have weed seeds in them, so they are better used as feed than as mulch.

Straw is also drier than hay, which means that it is less likely to mold right away.

Generally, straw is a little more affordable than hay, so it is the better option for animal bedding as well.

One drawback of straw is that it is very dry, which can create a fire hazard if stored in large amounts in a barn.

Another drawback of straw is that it is less nutritious than hay when it comes to feeding animals.


Hay is mainly used as feed for animals, since this is the 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:

  • Fescue
  • Ryegrass
  • Timothy
fescue grass
Fescue is one type of grass that is often cut and dried to make hay.

Some legumes used to make hay include:

  • Alfalfa
  • Clover
Alfalfa (Lucerne) is a legume crop that can be turned into hay.

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.

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

green hay bales
Hay bales usually have a little more moisture than straw bales.

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.

cows eating hay
Hay is often used as feed for cows and other animals.

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!

If you do end up with problematic weeds, you can learn how to get rid of them without bending or kneeling in my article here.

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 work out fine.

If you grow alfalfa to restore nitrogen in your soil, you can also use the crop as hay to feed animals.


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.

If you want to find places to buy straw or hay in person (instead of online or at a chain store), ask your local agricultural extension office (you can find a list of them by state here).

You might also want to read my article on growing tomato plants in straw or my article on growing potato plants in straw.

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

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Jon M

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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