Straw vs. Hay: Everything You Need to Know About Hay and Straw

September 15, 2022

Alfalfa and hay

Straw and hay are common agricultural products used for various purposes. Hay is usually used as livestock fodder, while the straw can be used for bedding, biofuel, gardening, and construction. Straw is composed of dried grain stalks. Hay is a grass that has been mown and dried.

Straw and hay are commonly confused for each other. Although straw and hay share several similar uses, it’s important to understand the differences in their structure, nutritional content, and potential uses to make the most of your harvest.

What Is the Difference Between Hay and Straw?

Some straw and hay may look similar but have different compositions, appearances, and uses. For example, straw is made of grain stalks, while hay is made of dried grass or legumes. Hay is usually made for animal feed. Straw is made for bedding, compost, mulch, erosion control, and more.

Not sure if you have straw or hay? If it’s yellow, dry, hollow, and unappetizing to horses, it’s probably straw.

What Is Straw and How Is It Made?

Closeup shot of hay

Straw is an agricultural byproduct, the dry stalk, of cereal plants once the grain and chaff have been removed. Cereal crops include wheat, rye, rice, oats, barley, and other grain crops. Straw has a golden yellow color.

  • Wheat: Wheat straw can be used as feed, mulch, bedding, and building material.
  • Rice: Rice straw can condition the soil, generate energy, and feed livestock.
  • Rye: Rye straw can be used as animal bedding and mulch.
  • Oats: Oat straw extract from the Avena sativa plant may have several health benefits, including anti-inflammation and mood enhancement
  • Barley: Barley straw is commonly used to control algae growth in ponds.

As an agricultural byproduct, straw is what is leftover from grain crops that have been grown and harvested for animal or human food production. Grain crops include wheat, rice, oats, and barley.

The harvest process involves threshing, which is removing the chaff and grain from the stalk. The grain is the edible portion that can be used for animal feed or milled into flour for bread and pasta. The chaff is the dry, protective casing covering the seed. In corn, the chaff is the green corn husk leaves that protect the seeds. Humans can’t digest it, but it can be a low-quality forage for livestock.

After the grain and chaff are removed, the stalk byproduct is left. Dry stalks can be assembled into straw bales and tied together with string or twine.

What Is Hay and How Is It Made?

Closeup shot of green hay

Hay is made up of dried cereal crops like grass or legumes. High-quality hay consists of seed heads, stalks, and leaves and has a green color. It is mainly used as livestock feed when pasture is limited. Common types of hay include timothy, bluegrass, Bermuda, ryegrass, fescue, alfalfa, and clover.

  • Timothy hay: A type of grass hay, timothy hay is primarily fed to horses due to its high fiber, high energy, and low protein content.
  • Orchardgrass: Orchardgrass is popular hay for horses. It is high in protein, fiber, and calories.
  • Oat hay: Oat hay is easy to grow and makes good feed for young livestock.
  • Triticale: Triticale is a hybrid of rye and wheat. It has a high protein content and is easy for livestock to digest.
  • Alfalfa: Alfalfa provides an adequate protein level to livestock at low to moderate levels. High protein is vital for lactating dairy cattle. High protein levels can cause bloating.

Farmers grow grasses such as ryegrass, fescue, and timothy or legumes such as alfalfa and clover. Farmers then harvest the grain crops when the crops have seeds. The harvested crop is cut and dried and formed into hay bales.

How Is Straw Used?

Straw, a byproduct of a grain crop harvest, has many uses, including animal bedding and mulch, and can also be used as cattle feed, building material, and biofuel.


Baby horse laying in hay

If you are caring for livestock, straw makes excellent bedding and can be easily and quickly replaced with new straw. The old straw can be added to the compost pile, adding nutrients to the mixture. Straw is affordable, absorbent, and comfortable for livestock.

Animal Feed

Although straw does not have a lot of nutritional content and should not be a primary food source for livestock, it can be used sparingly as a supplement. Straw is not as nutritious as hay because it does not have any seeds or leaves. Straw is low in protein, coarse, high in fiber, and not easy to digest.


Hay on porch with pumpkins

Straw bales are a functional and rustic decoration for any home. Add curb appeal to your home’s entryway with strategically positioned straw bales, or use them as seating for special events on the farm. They work well for fall and Halloween events. Straw bale maze, raised gardening with straw bales. There are many ways straw can elevate your property’s look.


Straw can also be added to your compost pile, a mixture of organic material left to decompose and used to fertilize the soil. Over time, straw will decompose, adding nutrients to the pile. When it’s ready, the compost can be added to plants and provide beneficial nutrients. You can also build a compost bin with straw bale walls. In heavy clay soil, compost can improve its compaction and drainage issues.

Mulch and Gardening

Woman gardening in hay

Straw provides numerous uses in gardening. In straw bale gardening, you can grow plants in the bales with fertilizer. It’s essentially raised bed gardening. Straw bales are easy to set up and provide greater accessibility for some mobility-restricted gardeners.

Straw can be used as a garden mulch. It has several advantages, such as insulating the soil and retaining heat to help roots stay warm into the night. Straw mulch can also help retain moisture, especially in drought conditions, and can control weeds and erosion. Using hay mulch is not recommended because it can germinate weed seeds from the hay. Only certified weed-free straw bales should be used for gardening purposes.

When potatoes reach 6-10 inches high, gardeners use a technique called hilling, which involves creating a mound of soil around the potato plant’s stems. Once they grow 8-12 inches tall, they can get a second hilling with straw, which makes for an easy harvest.

Archery Targets

High-quality straw is a degradable and environmentally-friendly material that can be handwoven to create a durable and long-lasting archery target. However, you may need to buy an arrow puller to remove them from the tightly-woven target. Straw bales make great archery backstops for your target to keep arrows from shooting past the target or hitting others. Note that normal straw bales may not have enough stopping power, especially for compound bows, should use compressed bales.

Building Material

Straw has been used as a building material for thousands of years. Straw bale construction is a method that uses straw as insulation. As a building material, straw bales are excellent insulators, affordable, widely available, fire resistant, and good at sequestering carbon. This type of building material is primarily used in dry climates.

How Is Hay Used?

Hay is mainly used as a supplemental feed for farm animals. Beyond being used as animal feed, a hay bale has many other creative uses, too!


Hay is generally used to feed livestock, horses, and small pets like rabbits because it contains seeds and has more nutritional content than straw. Farmers or horse owners may feed hay year-round or only when grass production or pasture forage quality is down, such as in winter or summer during a drought. Hay quality can be tested by submitting samples to a laboratory.

Hay nutrition requirements vary between animal species. For example, mature, non-lactating sheep need about 7% dietary crude protein from their forage and pasture. Horses need higher crude protein levels (10-12%) in comparison.

Excessive moisture can increase the risk of mold developing in the hay. Do not feed your animals moldy hay. Composting hay with mold is an option. Weed seeds in hay can compete with other plants and create weeds.

In addition to nutritional content, the cleanliness of the hay is also important. Hay should be free of debris and excess dust or dirt and noxious weeds. Hay is also vulnerable to bacterial and mold growth, which presents a potential health risk when feeding animals, especially horses. Hay suspected of mold growth should never be fed to animals. However, moldy hay may still be able to be used for mulch, keeping in mind that any weed seeds present in the hay could compete with other plants.

Straw vs. Hay: Price

Although prices vary by season and region, hay is usually more expensive than straw. Straw is more affordable because it’s the leftover plant material. Fresh and clean hay can fetch a higher price due to the nutritional content in its leaves and seeds.

What Is Alfalfa Hay?

Man moving alfalfa hay

Alfalfa has been grown as a forage crop for thousands of years and continues to be a high-nutrient food source. Alfalfa provides a higher source of protein, fiber, calcium, vitamins, and minerals compared to other hays. Livestock, horses, and small pets love alfalfa hay’s rich flavor.

Also known as lucerne and Medicago sativa, alfalfa is legume hay. Other legumes include chickpeas, beans, lentils, and clover. It is ideally harvested pre-bloom. Younger alfalfa has higher protein levels than mature alfalfa.

can be fed an unlimited amount of alfalfa hay. Combining grass hays and alfalfa hay, particularly for nursing, pregnant, and growing animals, provides them with a variety of flavors, textures, and nutrients and widens their tastes, so they can eat other hay when they are not in this stage.

Alfalfa vs. Grass Hay: What Is the Difference?

Alfalfa and different types of grass hay are grown and harvested similarly and can even look alike in their mature and dried form. Alfalfa and grass hay can also have high fiber concentrations and nutritional value.

Alfalfa has a sweet aroma and a thick leafy texture compared to grass hay which can vary in aroma and texture. Grass hay tends to have low protein and calcium levels compared to alfalfa hay. Grass hay is usually reserved for adult animals, while alfalfa is good for pregnant, nursing, and young animals.

When inspecting alfalfa and grass hay, you will notice that grass has long and narrow leaf blades. Alfalfa plants look like clover and are trifoliate, meaning they have three leaflets. Alfalfa flowers are usually purple and can have white and yellow shades.

What Happens If Animals Eat Too Much Alfalfa?

Adult animals that overeat alfalfa can suffer from many health problems. For example, alfalfa has high calcium levels, leading to bladder sludge in rabbits and guinea pigs. Alfalfa’s higher amount of protein leads to small pets gaining excessive weight over time. Excessive protein and calcium can make their kidneys work harder, too.

In horses, too much alfalfa hay can cause them to founder, a severe form of laminitis that is characterized by inflammation inside the laminae of horse feet.

Hay Isn’t Just for Horses: Hay for Farm Animals and Small Pets

When you think of hay, you probably imagine a horse or cow enjoying this fresh and tasty forage. However, hay is an excellent forage for many livestock and domestic pets, such as small mammals.


Horses can thrive on alfalfa, grass, or legume hay. Mature horses will not require high calcium or protein concentrations in their feed unless they are nursing foals.

Hay that is too wet, dry, or green may not be suitable for horses. Feeding horses dusty or moldy hay can cause respiratory issues. Some types of mold can cause colic or even abortion in pregnant mares.

The hay you feed your horses depends on where you live and what your horse needs. Mature horses can be fed good-quality grass hay because it contains the right calcium and phosphorus ratio (1:1 or 2:1).

Lactating or pregnant mares and young horses can benefit from a bit of legume hay in their diet to give them that extra boost of protein and other nutrients.

Weanlings need leafy hay, while adult horses can be fed mature hay. Fine and leafy alfalfa, for example, can be too palatable causing horses to overeat. This hay does not have the right fiber concentration for digestion.


Cow eating hay in barn

Cattle have stronger stomachs compared to other livestock, allowing them not to be as affected by moldy or dusty hay. Be careful when feeding cattle moldy hay, though since some types of mold are toxic to cattle and can lead to abortion in pregnant cows.

The type of hay you feed cattle depends on their stage of life and type. Mature beef cattle can do well with many kinds of regular hay, but you may need to provide the appropriate nutrient requirements to lactating cows, young calves, and dairy cows.

Lactating cows require a sufficient amount of protein. Coarse hay can be deficient in protein and vitamin A, requiring supplementation.

Young calves aren’t as developed and can have trouble chewing hay. They prefer fine hay that has been harvested before it has begun to bloom. This hay is more nutritious and easier on their mouths than coarser hay.

Dairy cows require the highest quality hay packed with nutrients. Milk production requires a lot of energy and nutrients. Feeding them coarse or grass hay with few leaves can cause trouble with lactation. During this time, they can eat alfalfa hay, which is highly nutritious.

When trying to get the most out of your hay, you can blend in straw and a protein for beef cattle. Straw can give them energy via the fermentation in the rumen. A commercially produced protein supplement or a bit of alfalfa can round off the necessary protein, vitamins, and minerals. In terms of straw, we recommend oat straw which is tastier for beef cattle than barley or wheat straw.


Sheep have a discerning taste for fine and leafy hay over coarse hay. They prefer to munch on the young grass hay, mainly alfalfa hay, which has a high energy level necessary for growing lambs. Mature sheep can be fed high-quality grass hay.

Sheep are grazers, meaning they prefer to eat plants close to the ground. We recommend keeping hay in a feeder to keep the forage clean and dry. Sheep can be fed alongside cattle so that the sheep pick up the finer leaves that cattle leave behind.


Kids love clover, alfalfa, soybean, vetch, and lespedeza legume hays. You can even feed these to lactating and pregnant does. Mature goats can thrive on a mixture of grassy and legume hay but do not prefer the coarse stuff. They may just eat the leaves and leave the rest.

Goats are browsers, meaning they prefer to eat leaves, fruits in tall plants, soft shoots, and woody plants. Goats may eat hay with some weeds in it as long as it contains no toxic ingredients.

Goats require about 2-4 pounds of hay per day. They require a good amount of roughage for their rumen, their first stomach, to function correctly. An adult goat can thrive on timothy, teff, or Bermuda hay.


Llamas and alpacas are herbivores that feed like ruminants, except ruminants have four stomachs and camelids have three. Adult camelids can feed primarily on grass hay and small amounts of alfalfa, while the crias can feed on alfalfa when they are able to eat forage.

A small portion of alfalfa hay is ideal for pregnant, lactating, or young camelids. For everyone else, alfalfa should be fed as a treat to prevent urinary stones. Llamas and alpacas prefer leafy and soft grass hay such as bluegrass, orchard grass, fescue, and brome hay. Cool season grasses are easier to digest and have higher crude protein levels than warm grasses.

Small Pets

Rabbit laying in hay and straw

Small pets such as rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs survive mostly on hay. These herbivores need about 75% hay in their diet.


Hay is integral to a rabbit’s diet to maintain its digestive health and keep teeth from overgrowing. For rabbits, 2nd-cut timothy hay is the most popular option due to its flavor, smell, and texture.

Guinea Pigs

These fluffy critters can eat commercial pellets fortified with vitamin C and as much 2nd-cut timothy hay as they want. Eating hay helps their digestion and keeps their teeth from overgrowing. Meadow, Bermuda, orchard grass, alfalfa, oat, and bluegrass hay are also good options.

Hay Quality and Cut

Since many livestock species rely on forage as their primary nutrition source, it’s important to give your livestock the highest quality forage, which varies depending on many factors, including the maturity stage at harvest. Young plants are leafier and have higher concentrations of proteins, sugars, starches, and minerals. Mature plants have a lower amount of nutrients and a higher amount of plant fiber.

Other factors that affect the quality of the hay include the harvesting, handling, and storage methods. To preserve the most amount of nutrients, hay should be cured in dry and sunny weather as fast as possible. The ideal moisture content should be between 15-18%. Once it reaches this level, the hay can be moved from the field to a dry and properly ventilated area.

The high-quality feed should have minimal or no weeds, since they do not provide much nutritional value, and some species can be toxic to animals. Low-quality hay may have harmful debris such as trash or broken equipment parts.

High-quality hay should be leafy with minimal or no coarse stems. It should not have any dust or mold. Good hay is usually a bright and green color with a fresh and sweet aroma. Brown-colored hay with a musty smell is low quality.

Hay comes in three different types of cuttings: first, second, and third.

  • First cut: First cut hay is relatively coarse and has more stems and seed heads. It’s also lower in nutrition but higher in fiber.
  • Second cut: Second cut hay is softer than first cut and contains a blend of stems and leaves, with fewer stems than first cut hay. It’s a good choice for small pets. Second-cut hay is high in fiber and more nutritious than first-cut hay. It’s also greener.
  • Third cut: Third-cut hay is basically all leaf with few stems and seed heads. It is low in fiber, bright green, and a good option for picky eaters.

Forage Alternatives

Man showing pieces of hay and straw

In some harsh conditions, forage alternatives can help livestock producers handle a shortage of quality hay. Unlike bales of hay, hay alternatives are not sold in flakes. Refer to the manufacturer’s feeding directions.


Hay cubes made from dried and chopped alfalfa or a blend of other grasses can be a supplement or complete replacement for pasture or hay. Some animals may require you to soak the cubes in water before feeding to prevent choking. This option can be good for animals who have trouble chewing, underweight animals, or high-performance animals that need energy and protein.


This hay alternative contains various ingredients, including straw, weed seeds, chaff, hulls, and grain seeds, alongside other processing debris. The quality and nutritional value of screenings vary by manufacturer and type of screening (sunflower, field pea, wheat, corn, etc.).


Hay pellets are dried, ground, and cooked hay that is convenient to feed animals and easy to store. Although they are easy to chew and digest, they may reduce chewing in horses, which reduces saliva production and increases the risk of developing stomach ulcers. Hay pellets are also more expensive compared to long stem hay.


Hay stretchers are complete, high-fiber feeds that come in pellets and can be a substitute or supplement for forage or hay. Stretchers create a balanced blend of easy-to-digest and tasty roughage with the animal’s complete nutrient requirements.

Compressed Bales vs. Regular Bales vs. Bagged Forage

Hay bales are usually small and square or large and round, depending on your livestock’s needs. Selecting high-quality hay for livestock and small pets requires understanding the difference between packaging options.

Regular Bales

Standard hay bales, sold in 2-3-string sizes, are usually made in the field when harvested, which preserves the forage’s natural form. Regular bales have about 10-17 flakes per bale. A bale flake is a thin slab section that is easy to separate. This bale form usually has a higher moisture content than compressed bales.

Compressed Bales

Compressed bales are relatively more expensive than regular bales due to the extra processing needed to compress the hay. Although compressed bales have about the same number of flakes as regular bales, compressed bales are more space-saving for storage or travel and may appear smaller than expected. They can be easier to chew for older animals.

Bagged Forage

Forage feed for livestock and small pets may be available in bagged varieties. The durable packaging can protect the hay from dust and moisture, making it perfect for outdoor storage. Dust-free hay is recommended for animals with respiratory issues. Bagged forage’s compact form and high nutritional value make it a good option when going to a show or traveling.

Storing Hay

Barn with piles of hay and straw

Good storage practices can preserve hay’s nutritional value. One of the most important aspects of hay storage is limiting moisture levels. Hay should not exceed a moisture content of 10-15%. Some farmers add a mold inhibitor if hay goes beyond these moisture levels.

Store hay indoors or under cover to protect it from the elements. When stored outdoors, hay can get rained on, increasing moisture and the risk of mold. Moisture can also come from the soil if stored directly on the ground without protection.

Moldy hay can produce mycotoxins that are harmful to horses and livestock if fed to them. Health issues from eating moldy hay can include metabolic, respiratory, digestive, immunity, performance, weight, feeding, and lactation issues. Moldy hay can even cause abortion in pregnant livestock.

Round bales tend to repel water better than square bales due to their curved shape that allows water to run off. Densely packed bales are better able to prevent moisture from entering the bale. Plastic wrap and netting can provide improved water protection over bailing twine.

Another concern with hay storage is spontaneous combustion. Excessive moisture in hay is one of the most common causes of fires. Hay stacks and bales can reach internal temperatures above 130º F (55º C). When it gets this hot inside the wet bale, a chemical reaction can create flammable gas that can spontaneously ignite if it gets too hot. Check your hay regularly for any signs of heating. A temperature probe can help protect against hot spots.

Shop Straw and Hay Bales at Wilco Farm Stores

Straw and hay can be used for a wide range of purposes. Getting high-quality hay and straw is essential to your livestock’s health. Find premium hay products, straw, and hay-feeding equipment at your local Wilco Farm Store.