What is the Difference Between Hay and Straw?

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 Learn the difference between hay and straw so you are choosing the best option for your homesteading situation.

Difference between straw and hay

When I first started out as a homesteader, I was not quite prepared for all the things I would need to know. Let’s be honest, in the beginning, my main concern was the health and well-being of my animals. I went from a dog to a herd of goats, pigs, and chickens so the overwhelm was definitely there to simply keep them alive! 

And while the health and care of our animals is incredibly important, I soon learned that so much more goes into having a successful Homestead.

a hay bale tossed out of a red barn to a cart below. Difference between hay and straw

Most of the things I’ve learned over my last 18 years of homesteading came through good old-fashioned trial and error. Usually, I would do something, get the worst possible outcome, and learn a valuable lesson in the process.

This is exactly what happened when I decided to use hay in my garden as opposed to straw. But more on that in a bit.

Before I tell this sad, yet comical tale, we first need to go over a few of the basics. If you did not know, hay and straw are two completely different things and by the time you are done reading, my hope is that you will be better prepared on what to use to feed your animals, to bed your animals, and what works best in your compost bin and garden.

Yes, there is a difference between hay and straw, and if you’re not careful you can have awful side effects and issues that you may find yourself dealing with for years to come. 

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First, let’s go over the definitions. 

What is hay?

Hay is grass, legumes, or other herbaceous plants that have been cut and then dried. Hay contains all parts of the plant or grass meaning nothing is removed during cutting. Hay contains nutrients needed for feeding and maintaining livestock. 

What is straw?

Straw is very different from hay because it does not contain the seeds, grain, or chaff (the seed’s casing) of the plant. Because of this, there is no nutritional value in straw which is why it is not used as food for livestock. 

Both straw and hay are harvested the same way, by mowing or cutting. Once cut it is left to lay where it is in long rows allowing it to dry for a day or two in the warm sunshine. Once it is dry it is then gathered up into bales. These bales are then protected from the weather, in particular rain, by either a plastic wrap or in a well-ventilated barn or another shelter. 

When and why do you use hay?

Since hay is the entire plant and therefore contains all the nutritional value of that plant, the main purpose of hay is to feed livestock animals. The nutritional value is found in all of the parts of the plant and for that reason, it is important that only hay is used for feeding your livestock rather than straw.

It is best to let your animals graze on fresh pasture, however, if you live in an area where winters prevent that or you do not have access to a pasture for your animals to graze you will need to have a steady supply of good quality hay. 

When choosing hay to feed your livestock, it is important to know what grasses your animals eat and need so you can choose the best cuts for each breed. 

3 goats eating fresh grass from a pasture

Goats – Goats need protein, especially dairy goats and for that reason, Alfalfa hay is at the very top of their list. However, finding this type of hay in some areas can be hard as it is not widely grown. You can also feed goats Timothy hay and/or Orchard grass and supplement with alfalfa chaffhaye or alfalfa pellets if needed and actually this is what we do on our own homestead.  Learn more on Raising Dairy Goats here.


Sheep – Sheep prefer to eat finer grass so for that reason you will want to look for grassier hay or if you have access to it or a leafy Alfalfa hay. 

Rabbits – Rabbits need to have access to hay that is clean and completely dry. Alfalfa and Timothy are both good options to feed your rabbits. 

Horses – When feeding horses, you will want to look for Timothy hay, Bermudagrass hay, Oat hay, Alfalfa hay, and Clover/grass hay. Try to find hay that does not contain a lot of dirt or dust as this can cause coughing issues in horses.

Cows – When feeding cows look for Alfalfa mixed with Grass hay. You can also feed Legume hay as well. The hay you feed your cattle will depend on whether they are beef or dairy as each has different nutritional requirements.

SLCG PRO TIP: Never feed moldy hay to your animals. Moldy had will not only run the risk of abortions in livestock but can also make your animals gravely ill or even kill them. Yes, some cows can handle a bit of mold but they still run the risk of aborting if they are pregnant. Always look for good quality, clean, and as dust-free as you can get. to your animals. Hay is meant to be nutritional and that means you will need to look for a quality that is good in your area. 

What is the cost of hay? 

Finding hay to purchase for your animals can be a little tricky when you are new. For us, we called our local County Extension office as well as the local feed mill. These two places will let you know of any hay auctions in your area or local farmers that you can contact for purchase. 

SLCG PRO TIP: If you are just starting out with new animals, look for others in your area to reach out to. For us, we looked for other goat farmers and even purchased a few goats from them when starting out. The information they shared with us was more valuable than any books we could find because our wet area is a unique struggle with goats. Our new goat friends were able to share inside tips on feed, housing, and care that served us for many years to come. 

The cost of hay will depend on a few different factors. 

Your area – If you live in an area that grows the specific hay you need, you will pay less than you would in an area that does not. Ask around if you are not sure what hay is local to where you live. 

The quality of hay – The better the quality of hay the more you can expect to spend. When do you need to up the quality? I suggest feeding better cuts of hay to very young animals, pregnant animals, or any livestock you are milking.  Another scenario is if you have any animals that are recovering from an ailment or other issue. Up the quality of the feed to help them better recover and heal. 

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The cuts of hay– There are several cuts that happen during each season. Please note that the cut times I have listed below are for our area in Pennsylvania and may not reflect specifically to you. 

  • 1st cut hay – Done in the spring and usually the cheapest to buy. It is a dryer cut of hay and tends to be thicker as well. FYI – When feeding first cut hay to goats, you will need to watch them for cuts in their mouths that can sometimes happen when poked with dry sharp hay stems. This is something that commonly happens and is usually not an issue but I do want you to be aware so you can administer first aid if needed. 
  • 2nd cut hay – D0ne in early summer and a better all-around cut of hay. This is what you will want to buy, if you can find it/afford it, for wintering your animals. 
  • 3rd cut hay – Done in mid-summer and a very lush and rich cut that is great for winter feedings of pregnant animals, such as goats. 
  • 4th cut hay – Done only sporadically as it depends on the weather. We do not feed 4th cut to our animals as we have yet to find a good quality in our area for this cutting. 

The size of the bale for both straw and hay – Depending on where you live will determine the size of bales that are available. The most common sizes of bales are.

  • Small square bales – (even though they are rectangles we always called them squares) These bales are usually tied with two strings and measure about 36x19x16. You can expect these bales to weigh anywhere from 40-70 pounds each. This size is the most common and the most easily found.
  • Large square bales – These bales are usually tied with three strings and measure about 44x22x15. You can expect these bales to weigh anywhere from 100 pounds or more. These bales are more for larger farms and/or homesteads. 
  • Round bales – These are HUGE bales and should only be purchased for very large (sometimes commercial-sized) herds of animals. Round bales are very heavy and cannot be moved by hand. They weigh anywhere from 1000-2000 pounds. 

round hay bales in a spring pasture.

When and why do you use straw? 

Since straw only contains the stem of the plant and not the seeds or chaff, it has little to no nutritional value. For that reason, it is more used in gardening and landscaping projects. Using straw will keep weeds and other unwanted growth out of the garden allowing just the intended plant to grow.

Another common use for straw is as bedding for your livestock, in pens, or in your chicken coop.

SLCG PRO TIP: It is always a good rule of thumb to use straw as bedding with your animals. Using hay to bed your animals runs the risk of them eating soiled hay which can cause worms in many ruminants. 

Using straw around the homestead.

To remember when to use straw, keep this tip in mind. Straw is for maintenance and hay is for food. 

Using straw in the garden. 

One of the most important parts of any garden is the water. No, not the fertilizer or even the soil, although those factors are quite important, I still firmly believe that water will make or break what you grow. If you water too much, or too little, or at the wrong time or in the wrong way, your garden will be lackluster at best. 

That is why mulching with straw is so helpful to gardeners no matter where they live. When you use straw to mulch around your plants you will keep the soil wet longer which is the very best way to grow large and healthy fruits and veggies. 

Hay fork covering the ground around tomato plants with straw mulch


If you don’t think what you put around your plant matters, please read on. 

Early on, I told you of a big faux pas I made when I started out on my own gardening journey. I used hay to mulch around my plants rather than using straw. Yes, the protection part is the same no matter which you choose to use, but the after-effects can be quite costly. 

Remember earlier we talked about the makeup of both straw and hay? Straw is basically the stem of the plant only whereas hay has the plant, the flower, the seed, all of it. So, if you choose to use hay around your plants you are in a sense, sprinkling the soil in your garden with a large and ample supply of seeds. And those seeds after watered throughout the summer growing season are also going to grow, grow, and GROW.

weeds growing in hay bales

The picture above, although the quality is awful, it does tell my tale most accurately. I used straw in my garden and ended up with so many weeds and briars that then spread all over the west pasture that I never tried this way of mulching again.

Lesson learned, so take my advice. If you do not want to be faced with more weeds than tomatoes, you will want to ensure you are always using straw in both your garden and in your compost bin at all times. 

Yes, used straw can definitely go into your compost bin and that is great news for us homesteaders. After your garden is done you have a few options for the leftover straw. You can either, 1. work it back into the soil and let it sit over the winter, or 2. rake it up and put it into your garden’s compost bin. 

If you do not yet have a compost bin, you may want to add that to your spring project list. Compost is a great additive for your garden and the more you can mix and cook on your own the more you will know just how good the compost quality is for your garden soil. 


Using straw as bedding. 

As I said earlier when bedding up animals it is always best to use straw. This will deter them from eating their bedding which can be soiled or dirty. A few bedding areas for straw are:

  • Goat kidding pens
  • Sick bays
  • Animal stalls
  • Chicken nesting boxes
  • Rabbit hutches

Using straw and your entire garden.

A new way that I love to garden is with straw bales. To quickly explain what that is, instead of using a tilled up portion of your land to grow a garden you are transforming a straw bale into one. This is a great solution for anyone that is short on space or has health limitations such as a bad back or walking issues. By using a straw bale as your garden you are more able to get that garden closer to your home where it is more convenient to care for. 

pitchfork in a pile of straw in a diy compost bin

As homesteaders the more we can do at home the more we save. Educate yourself on the tools you use from start to finish so are using them all in the very best way. Knowing the difference between hay and straw will help you in all aspects of homesteading. 



  1. Thanks for sharing that! My only question is how do you know if the folks you are buying from are selling hay or straw? Some feed stores here sell “hay” that looks a lot more like straw. Just curious!

    1. Great question, Kim!
      Usually, you will need to inspect a bale to be sure. Hay tends to be a much firmer set of stalks/stems and is very yellow almost gold in color. Whereas hay is softer and much thinner in the stem, easy in a way to bend. Hay smells more like grass and has a green color to it. Just an FYI, good hay really good 2-3 cut crop hay…smells absolutely amazing. I can’t explain it but it is so soft and so fragrant that you just know it is good hay your animals will love. 🙂
      I hope that helps!

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