Hay Versus Straw Whats The Difference

Hay vs. Straw: What’s the Difference?

Though they are often (erroneously) used interchangeably, hay and straw are very different products and have their own important purposes for the farmer. Read on for a side-by-side comparison of hay and straw!

Basic difference

The easiest way to explain the difference between hay and straw, is to say that hay is a type of crop grown for its nutritional value (where the entire live, healthy plant is harvested, including the seed head), while straw is a by-product of grain crops (the dead “leftovers” after the rest of the plant has been harvested).


How it’s made

Hay is usually harvested right before the seed is at its ripest, in order to preserve the highest amount of nutrients from the plant. It is left to dry until most of the moisture is gone, and is then gathered and processed into bales or stacks, for storage.

Straw is the hollow stalk left behind after the seed head of the crop has been harvested. Straw

What are the types?

Common types of hay include grasses like ryegrass, timothy and Bermuda grass, as well as legumes such as alfalfa and clovers. Sometimes, grains like wheat or barley are cut green and used as hay, but these crops are most often harvested when they are fully mature, with a by-product of straw.

Straw comes from various types of grain, such as wheat, barley, oats or rice.



Hay is stored as round or square bales, or in a haystack. Sometimes it is stored in a barn, while other times it is wrapped in plastic and stored in the field. It must be completely dry when baled, and must be stored in a dry place. If it’s still wet while it’s baled, or if it gets wet in storage, it runs the risk of spontaneously combusting! Hay produces an internal heat due to bacterial fermentation during the respiration process, which happens until the moisture content of the hay drops below 40%. Too much moisture can lead to very high internal temperatures, sometimes enough to ignite a fire. Hay is in danger of spontaneous combustion when it reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees.

Straw is usually stored as bales, either round or square. It is naturally dry, since it is the dead “leftovers” from a grain crop. It is in danger of catching fire if exposed to flames or sparks, but doesn’t have the danger of spontaneous combustion like hay does.



Hay is generally greener in color, especially compared to straw, since it’s harvested while the crop is still young and growing. As it dries, it does start to turn more yellow or brown, but will typically still look greener than straw.

Straw is yellow or light brown, since it is a by-product after the crop has matured and started to dry.


Hay is generally grown with one purpose in mind: feeding various animals. The type of hay grown can vary by animal, since different types of hay have different nutritional value. The type of hay you would feed to a horse might not be the same hay you would feed to a cow or a rabbit.


Straw is much more versatile. It can be used as bedding for animals, as compost or fertilizer, to help insulate during the winter, and even as a source of energy—some power plants in the UK burn straw to help fuel homes. Some farmers will leave the straw in the field and till back into the ground. Straw can also be used in crafting, for basket-weaving, in clothing (such as hats or shoes), or as rope. In some parts of the world, straw is used as a binder for clay or concrete, or in thatching, as insulation for a roof.

What is silage?

Silage is a process that involves fermenting freshly harvested hay, while they’ve still retained their moisture. The most common types of hay used for silage are grasses, alfalfa, clover, oats, rye and maize. The crop is harvested and allowed to dry for a day or two (less time than when it’s being used for hay), and then packed very tightly into a silo. Sometimes, the cut crop is baled and then completely wrapped in plastic to keep the air out. Within 48 hours of being packed, the silage begins to undergo an anaerobic fermentation, which converts the sugars to acid. It takes about two weeks for the entire fermentation process to be complete, and the resulting silage is used as fodder for certain types of farm animals.

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