My mental glitch: hay vs. straw

Photo by David Shankbone

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I went to the feed store to get some stuff for the chickens and at the counter I made a mistake. When the clerk said, “Anything else?” I said, “Oh yes. One bale of hay, please.”  She rang me up. The bill seemed more than usual, but being in my usual fog, I didn’t pay that much attention. The heavy lifting guys bring the hay bale to my car. It’s green and fragrant…it’s….HAY.

I meant straw.

This is not my fault. I’m a city kid. I was not taught the difference between straw and hay as a wee child, and as an adult, while I’ve learned the difference via the school of hard knocks, somewhere deep in my brain hay and straw remain synonyms. This problem shows no sign of going away.

I also persistently call my ipod my Walkman. This is even worse, because it shows my age. It’s like I’ve become one of those middle aged people who in my youth called the stereo “the hi-fi”.


Homegrown Evolution readers are all savvy folks, and know this already, but in case some poor soul is cast on this shore by Google, this is the difference between hay and straw:

Hay refers to grasses or legume plants cut down fresh and baled for animal feed. Hay bales are usually greener than straw bales, the plant material finer. Hay smells really nice, too. You would not want to use this stuff as mulch, or you’d end up sprouting a yard full of alfalfa or whatever. It’s also more expensive than straw, about three times as much, depending on the grass type. No one would use hay as bedding.

Straw is the dried stalks of cereal plants, like wheat. It’s a by-product of harvest. If any seeds remain on the stalks, it’s by accident. Therefore, straw is nutritionally void, and is not animal feed. However, that lack of seeds makes it a fine mulch, and an inexpensive bedding material. We line our chicken coop with it, and recommend it for weed suppression projects.

Leave a comment


  1. I think you meant it’s also more expensive than straw! I too am not from a farm, but landed on one. People catch me all the time since I just use the term hay for everything!

  2. Once you have animals that eat hay, you find out how many types there are. My goats turn up their noses at first-cutting. It must be second-cutting, and be totally free of dust. Horses like timothy hay. Alfalfa is nutrient rich. These hays smell different, too. Straw has it’s own pleasant scent and is very pretty. One year I used it to line the paths between my garden paths, and there must have been seeds left in, because it sprouted! I had tall green wheat shoots. Nice, but not what I wanted in that place. If there are seeds in yours, I’m sure your chickens will find and eat them before you pen turns into a mini-wheat field 🙂

  3. Terry: I like the scent of fresh straw, too! And our chickens do methodically comb through their bedding for seeds. Nothing is quite so fun as a fresh load of straw for them, but it does take chicken persistence for them to find the seeds.

    Anna: Argh! I just fixed it. See!!! I can’t even type a post about the dif. without making that mistake. Thanks. Maybe we can start an “all is hay” club.

  4. Fortunately alfalfa is cut before it goes to seed. It’s too woody then to be of much use. My goats refuse to eat anything but alfalfa, which is fine for now because we don’t have any males, which shouldn’t eat it. Timothy hay and orchard grass go to my rabbits when I’m feeling generous. LOL We recently got several bales of rice straw. It’s much finer than wheat and oat straw.

  5. What do you think of peat moss for chicken bedding? I have been reading up and it supposedly lasts longer and makes better deep litter. Not sure though… I know the UK has sustainability problems with peat, but I have also heard that they have shortages due to using it as fuel and not because of using it for agriculture. I would be interested to hear more about it.

  6. Sara:

    The sustainability of peat moss is a tricky issue. We posted on it recently:

    I’ll say I prefer straw over just about anything else in the chicken run because its a really good interactive material for the chickens–it gives them lots of material to dig through and play with. Inside the henhouse itself we use wood shavings, because those are easy to scoop up during our regular cleanings. I don’t know if I’d want to put peat moss in there because it’s a little on the dusty side–same reason I wouldn’t use sawdust. Opinions may vary.

  7. I usually remember it as Straw is Typically coarser and looks like a bale of drinking straws. while hay is usually finer and doesn’t look like a bale of straw (Exception of course being oat hay, which looks like straw)

  8. Hay and straw actually cost the same at our feed store this year. However, their straw is of such poor quality that I actually do buy hay for bedding.

  9. I still wrap things in tin foil before popping them in the ice box, despite the fact that I have never known either of those things, it is just family vernacular. At least you didn’t confuse a yam for a sweet potato!

  10. Funny! Like you, I’m a “city kid”, and I had to learn the difference in a similar fashion, except that I have rabbits and chickens, and we use “hay” as bedding for our animals – not “straw”, because the rabbits eat the hay. They need it to keep their systems running smoothly. I learned the difference when the feed store sold me a very poor quality “hay” that looked as if it might have been cut half-and-half with straw. My rabbits wouldn’t eat it.

    The other, very key, difference I’ve found is that the hay is less coarse and the animals seem to prefer it as bedding. It seems more absorbent than the straw, but it may not be.

  11. Ruth Stout famously used hay grown on a salt marsh as mulch. It seems not to have contained seeds, but had a high enough nitrogen content to work as fertilizer.

    • I use Ruth Stout’s advice about using thick mulch and I also use hay. Best thing I’ve ever done for my garden as I live in FL and weeds are unbelievable! Don’t get any now! Since hay seems more available in my town, that’s what I intend to use in my nesting boxes when my pullets get old enough to lay.

  12. Heh. I made the same mistake when I went into the feed store to get bedding for our new chickens. The store clerk was nice enough to give me an “are you sure” look before piteously clapping me on the back and telling me to take the piled scraps of straw and hay for free.

  13. I was cast upon these shores by Google, thanks for the explanation. I think that October “Hay Rides” are really to blame for much of this confusion as these technically should be called “Straw Rides”

  14. Hey. I’m one of those people thrown to these “shores” by google 😉 Just a quick thank you. Good article with a good hint of humor 🙂 Told me all I think i’ll ever need to know about hay and straw!

  15. Thank you! I also came upon this article using Google. I’m also a total city kid and had no idea there was a difference. Your reference to your “walkman” cracked me up.

  16. Pingback: DIY Funerals Part 2: Swine Composting | Root Simple

  17. Pingback: Composting for Lazy, Forgetful People | Mama Ruthie's Garden

  18. Pingback: Mulch, mulch, mulch! | Root Simple

  19. Yes, Google is still washing people up on this shore! Thanks for the clear and humorous explanation. I can never remember the difference either. I just know I want the one without weed seeds for my garden! Straw. straw. straw….write it down! 🙂


    • Good to know. Here in California (when there’s not a drought) rice hulls are a good alternative for animal bedding.

Comments are closed.