bales of grass hay

What Is The Difference Between Hay And Straw?

When it comes to agriculture and animal husbandry, understanding the distinction between hay and straw is essential. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they refer to distinct materials with different properties and uses. In this article, we will explore the characteristics, purposes, and differences between hay and straw.

Definition and Composition

Hay is a type of forage or feed that is usually made by drying long grass which has just started to produce a seed head.

It is typically harvested at this specific stage of growth when the nutrient content is optimal. The grass is cut and allowed to dry in the sun for 4 to 5 days after which it is baled. It is important to dry the grass as this allows it to be stored spoil-free for months or years.

a field of hay about to be baled by a tractor and square baler
The dried grass lying on the field is about to be baled for hay.

Straw refers to the dry, hollow stems of cereal crops, such as wheat, barley, or oats, which remain after the grain has been harvested.

Typically combines cut the grain crop close to the ground and the long stalks/ straws and heads of grain enter the combine in one piece. They are fed into a threshing drum which removes the grain. The processed straw stalks exit the back of the combine and lies in neat rows behind the combine ready to be baled.

round bales of barley straw
These golden bales of spring barley straw are being brought into the dry shed on a trailer.

While both hay and straw are plant-based, they differ in their composition and applications.

Uses of Hay

Hay serves as a crucial source of nutrition for livestock. It is commonly used as a dietary component for animals like horses, cows, and goats.

two round bales of hay
Round bales of hay

Hay offers several advantages due to its nutritional value and variety. In terms of nutrition, hay generally contains higher levels of proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamins compared to straw.

Different varieties of hay, such as alfalfa, timothy, orchard grass, or clover, have specific characteristics, enabling farmers to choose the most suitable option for their livestock’s dietary needs.

Uses of Straw

Straw finds its primary application as bedding material for animals in agricultural settings.
Round bales of straw.

Its hollow stems provide a comfortable and insulating layer for livestock, aiding in moisture absorption and waste management.

Additionally, straw serves other purposes beyond animal bedding. It is commonly used as mulch to retain moisture, control weeds, and prevent soil erosion in gardens and agricultural fields.

In addition, straw has found utility in traditional building techniques like straw bale construction, where tightly packed straw bales are used as insulation and structural components. Craftsmen also employ straw in basket weaving and other handicrafts due to its flexibility and durability.

Differences in Harvesting and Processing

The harvesting and processing techniques for hay and straw differ based on their respective plant sources.

Haymaking involves cutting the grasses or legumes at a specific stage, drying them to reduce moisture content, and then baling the material for storage or transportation.

Depending on the intended use, additional processing steps may be involved for hay, such as adding preservatives or supplements for enhanced nutritional value.

Straw is obtained by combining and threshing cereal crops, such as wheat or barley, to separate the grain from the stems. The leftover dry stems constitute straw.

Straw can be kept long and baled in rows behind the combine or it can be finely chopped by an additional chopping mechanism on the rear of the combine.

This combine is chopping the straw and spreading it evenly at the rear.

The chopped straw is equally spread across the ground. This adds valuable P and K back into the soil when it is ploughed in later – saving the farmer money by reducing the fertiliser input in the following year.

Price and Availability

The cost of hay and straw can vary based on several factors, including availability, demand, and quality.

Generally, hay tends to be more expensive than straw due to its higher nutritional value and the additional effort involved in its production.

The pricing can also be influenced by regional factors and the specific type of hay or straw required.

Availability of both hay and straw depends on factors like climate, agricultural practices, and the prevalence of suitable crops in different regions.

It is advisable to consult local agricultural suppliers or farmers to determine the availability and pricing in your area.

What Is The Difference Between Hay and Straw

The physical differences between hay and straw can be described as follows:


Hay typically has a softer and more flexible texture compared to straw. It is often leafy, with finer stems that are more pliable to the touch. In contrast, straw has a rougher and coarser texture due to its dry, hollow stems.

Although hay and straw look similar – hay is made up of finer stems compared to the coarser stems of straw. The above image is round baled hay – if you look at the surface of the field it will give you added confirmation if it is grass or cereal.


Hay tends to have a slightly greener hue, reflecting its composition of dried grasses and legumes. The colour of hay can vary depending on the specific plant species used.

On the other hand, straw is usually golden or tan in colour, similar to the colour of the grain from which it grew.

A close up view of the coarser stems of straw in a round bale.


Hay is generally denser than straw due to its composition of grasses and legumes, which have a higher moisture content.

This density contributes to its ability to provide more nutritional value for animals when used as feed. Straw, with its hollow stems, is less dense and has a lower moisture content.


Hay often carries a pleasant and distinct aroma due to the presence of dried herbs and legumes. This aroma can vary depending on the specific plant varieties used in the haymaking process.

In contrast, straw has a more neutral or straw-like scent, devoid of the herbal fragrance found in hay.


The physical differences between hay and straw also reflect their different purposes and applications.

Hay is primarily used as animal feed due to its higher nutritional value. It provides essential proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamins to support the dietary needs of livestock.

Straw, with its coarser texture and hollow stems, finds use as animal bedding, mulch for gardens, erosion control, and in certain construction techniques like straw bale building.


In conclusion, understanding the difference between hay and straw is crucial for anyone involved in agriculture, animal husbandry, or related industries. Hay serves as a valuable source of nutrition for livestock, while straw finds utility in animal bedding, mulching, and construction applications. By recognizing the distinct characteristics, purposes, and methods of harvesting and processing hay and straw, farmers and enthusiasts can make informed decisions and maximize the benefits derived from these agricultural materials.