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what is the difference between hay and straw  RSS feed

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Second, hay and straw are the exact same thing, only harvested at different times (hay was cut when green and then dried; straw was cut when the plant had already turned yellow and dry by itself).   The risk of seeds is the same.  
  Here's my take, Paul.  Straw is the end result of harvesting grain.  The grain (or seed head) is removed.  In this way, a person who builds a straw baled house, as opposed to a hay baled house does not have a house full of grain seed, but a house full of grain stalks, eliminating a huge risk of pests.
Staff note (r ranson):

This thread is a tangent from the permaculture superpower in berms

 
paul wheaton
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:
Second, hay and straw are the exact same thing, only harvested at different times (hay was cut when green and then dried; straw was cut when the plant had already turned yellow and dry by itself).   The risk of seeds is the same.  
  Here's my take, Paul.  Straw is the end result of harvesting grain.  The grain (or seed head) is removed.  In this way, a person who builds a straw baled house, as opposed to a hay baled house does not have a house full of grain seed, but a house full of grain stalks, eliminating a huge risk of pests.


We should probably take this to a different thread

Naturally, what is really going on is thousands of times richer with a big dose of "it depends".  

Generally, the hay has immature seeds which may, or may not, be mature enough, mature after being cut, etc.  Plus there are the seeds of other plants that were harvested with the grasses.  

And then in the world of straw, the seeds were definitely mature, and just the heads were cut off .... of the stalks that were the tallest.   The seed heads on the shorter stalks are still there. 

And, the story is much richer than this. 

The bottom line is that both hay and straw usually have viable seeds.    When you use it as mulch, there is a decent chance with each that fun things will germinate.   My experience is that about 95% of the time, nothing germinates.  And out of the 5% of the time where something does germinate, I mulch with more of the same and ... problem solved!


 
r ranson
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Straw is from grain stems.  Hay is from grasses.  It seems like the same thing, but in practice thare quite different because one of the traits grains were selected for was their ability to produce a stem with structure.  Straw is one of the most valued resources in pre industrial times.   Even hay harvested too late holds some nutritional value for livestock, but straw does not. 

It doesn't help that in times gone by, the word 'straw' refered to other plants that could be used for weaving or thatching, but these all had a strong sttructre to them that hay may or may not have. 
 
paul wheaton
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R Ranson wrote:Straw is from grain stems.  Hay is from grasses.  


Grass produces grain.   The "grain stems" are part of the grass plant. 

Hay can also come from alfalfa .... and any green plant that is cut green, dried and baled. 

Straw can come from pine straw ...  and any plant that is dry, high in carbon, and baled. 

See - this small topic gets really big, really fast.

(hell, it doesn't even have to be baled)
 
r ranson
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I see more where you're coming from Paul. 

The use of the language is changing constantly.  hay and straw seem to be in a state of flux the last 10 years or so.  It's possible it will settle on totally different meanings than any of us expect.

Looking at it from a weaver's point of view, 'straw' is very specific.  It's one of the forgotten cornerstones of our world.  Before industrialisation, it had a vital role in human lives.

For weavers, 'straw' has a specific structure.  We use it to make things like...
thatch
rain clothes
shoes
baskets
food strainers
filters
bedding for people and livestock
carpet
mats
hats
clothing
insulation
building walls
and... well, it's a long list.

What we now call alfalfa 'straw' doesn't fall into this category.  I'm pretty certain English has another word for it, but it's lost now.  That's one of the things I like least about how our language is changing, we use fewer words to mean the same number of things.  This new-speak is very frustrating because it leads to just this kind of equivocation.  It makes people feel like they are disagreeing with each other when they are usually just talking about different subjects.

What you call Pine Straw can be used to make baskets, hats, strainers and a few other useful things.  From a weaving point of view, it could be called straw because it has sufficient structure - however, until recently, I've never heard the term 'pine straw' used outside the USA. 


I don't know why baling has anything to do with hay or straw - it's an invention much newer than either word.


From the point of someone who cares for livestock, hay is based on nutritional quality.  I think this goes back again to pre-industrial times when straw was far more useful than livestock feed.  The stuff with a strong structure (which is also hard for the livestock to eat) would be put to one side for use, and hay would be for feeding to the animals.  In this context, hay is a very specific thing.


Enter the modern world.  We have little use for hay or straw in this post plastic, grain-fed-livestock error era.  But they sure are cool words.  They evoke images of the past which are great for marketing ideas.  'mulch' sounds so dull to the suburbanite, but 'pine straw' has an elegant ring to it.  I know more than a few who fall into that demographic who would never 'mulch' but they would use 'pine straw' or 'coconut whatever' or reishi manure, to make their garden look pristine.  But mulch?  Never!  Only poor people mulch.  I think it's a symptom of marketing as much as anything else. 
 
Ross Gardener
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III. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STRAW AND HAY?
Straw has more fiber and less nutrition than hay. Straw and hay can
actually be the harvested from the same plants (oat straw and oat hay for
example). The difference is how long the plant grows before it's
harvested. Hay is cut during the early stages of growth. The younger the
plant is when the hay is cut, typically the higher protein and nutrition
in the hay, when compared to the same plant. The best hays are usually
cut before the plant flowers. Straw, on the other hand, is allowed to
set seed and mature before cutting. This increases the amount of fiber
and decreases the amount of animal available nutrients in the plant.
Most grass/crop type plants die after they set seed, so all the nutrition
is transferred from the stems and leaves into the seeds. Straw is
typically a by-product of the grain industry.
 
Travis Johnson
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R Ranson wrote:From the point of someone who cares for livestock, hay is based on nutritional quality.  I think this goes back again to pre-industrial times when straw was far more useful than livestock feed.  The stuff with a strong structure (which is also hard for the livestock to eat) would be put to one side for use, and hay would be for feeding to the animals.  In this context, hay is a very specific thing.Enter the modern world.  We have little use for hay or straw in this post plastic, grain-fed-livestock error era.  But they sure are cool words.


This actually is not so. On most dairy farms and other livestock farms that care for their animals properly and utilize animal nutritionists, straw is actually purchased and given to the livestock in very specific rations. This is to ensure there is enough "roughage" for the ruminant animal. Where I live, we see this a lot on dairy farms where nutrition to the animal is important because animals only give milk when all their nutritional needs are met.

Often times people mistaken assume one ruminant is like another, for instance, a dairy farm gets paid high bonuses for high protein content because creameries draw off that protein and sell it to energy drink companies. Yet as a sheep farmer I often hear other sheep farmers thinking that they need high protein hay for their sheep "just like dairy cows", when actually it is detrimental to wool quality if that is what they are raising their sheep for. It makes the wool brittle and prone to breakage. However if a sheep farmer is growing market lambs would want a combination of protein and energy...about 60%/40% in that order. On my farm, where I often feed grass silage and corn silage in that ideal 60%/40% mix, I often give straw to my sheep for roughage.

Straw or silage can kill young livestock however. Growing lambs and other ruminant animals just cannot process either. That is because their stomachs are so small and they need all the nutrients they can to survive. The grass and corn silage I give to my adult sheep is ideally suited for them...cut at the proper 3/4 and 1/4 inch length respectively, and have the right combination of protein, vitamins, minerals and energy, but it also contains water...a lot of water. Silage is about 66% moisture, so when a baby ruminant eats silage they fill their stomachs up thinking they are full when in reality they are only 1/3 full. With 2/3 of it being water, they are full and literally starving to death both. A deadly oxymoron to say the least...be a reality. This does not affect the adult ruminants though because their stomachs are bigger and their dietary needs are smaller.

Straw does likewise, only their bellies are full of feed that cannot sustain them.

Meeting the nutritional needs of livestock is not a simple matter, and I do not pretend to have it all together. Not only knowing what each type of animal needs, what individual breeds require, what ages they are; you also have to know what stage of gestation they are in. Because livestock can only intake x-amount of feed, it is up to us to ensure every feeding is just what they need. It is NOT an easy task.
 
Travis Johnson
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The feed terminology that has changed for me has been "silage".

Years ago when you fed silage, you were feeding grass silage, chopped up with a purpose built chopper. Today with that invention of "baleage", or green hay that is wrapped in white plastic to ensile it, many people mistakenly call that "silage". To me it is just plain wrong terminology, but since I cannot some to win, and every time I say I use "silage" people are like, "yes I feed out those bales too", I have learned to just give in and call it "green chop." It is wrong because green chop only stems from flail choppers designed to cut and feed out that day, but there too I must just give in to a changing world.

Did I ever mention I dislike change?

As for corn silage, I have always used "corn" before "silage" to ensure people knew I was talking about chopped up corn and not chopped up grass.

Interestingly enough, my father gets confused because for some reason he calls "grass silage", or "green chop", "ensulage", and "corn silage"; silage.

 
r ranson
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Fair enough.

I can see the advantage of feeding straw when using silage and other feed styles.  Where I am, the grass is available most of the winter and we really only need to supplement hay in the summer.  That means for us the nutritional content of the hay is more important than roughage. 

I was oversimplifying and thinking mostly sheep, weaving and history (which are my areas of interest re straw v. hay).  Historically, straw had a much higher value than many animal products so the good straw would be reserved for use, not feed.  I'm not sure where silage fits in a historical context.

 
Roberto pokachinni
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The use of the language is changing constantly.  Hay and Straw seem to be in a state of flux the last 10 years or so.  
I guess the modern nomenclature of straw has not been set in stone yet, but that's not to say that I've personally ever heard of straw being defined as Paul has.  I wasn't intending to start an argument but to clarify where my thinking was coming from.  I'm glad to see this thread created in it's honor, and that more people have involved themselves in it. 

I live in a pretty rural agricultural/forest based hamlet and village valley community with dairy farms, cattle farms, sheep farms, and others.  I grew up spending some of my summers on the family farm (a beef and grain operation) in Saskatchewan, and I have helped build a few straw bale houses, so I do have some basis for my thinking based on my personal culture.

As Travis writes here:
On most dairy farms and other livestock farms that care for their animals properly and utilize animal nutritionists, straw is actually purchased and given to the livestock in very specific rations. This is to ensure there is enough "roughage" for the ruminant animal. Where I live, we see this a lot on dairy farms where nutrition to the animal is important because animals only give milk when all their nutritional needs are met.
so too is straw used on the dairy farms in this area, though all the dairies here grow their own straw rather than purchasing it.  I have purchased excess straw from these dairies for straw bale building in this valley, and I've never seen any grain seed in it. I'm not saying there is not any, but that I do not consider seed to be an aspect of straw at all.  

Though I don't recommend it, I personally mulch with hay.  This is generally spoiled hay, but still hay.  It has lots of seeds in it, particularly grass seeds like Timothy and Quack Grass, but also fescue and others, and if the field is not as clean, other weed seeds as well.  I do not recommend hay because of the amount of weed seeds, as many people do not mulch as thick as I do (which eliminates much of this problem).  I do follow the same method as Paul as quoted here:
And out of the 5% of the time where something does germinate, I mulch with more of the same and ... problem solved!
  However, disturbing the mulch/soil will germinate excess seeds which are prevalent in my experience, in the spoiled hay mulch that I get, and thinly mulching seems to make this worse. 

The next quote from Paul is not reflected in my personal experience
The bottom line is that both hay and straw usually have viable seeds. 
Like with my straw bale house building experience, this is not my experience because I directly associate straw with Paul's next quote,
And then in the world of straw, the seeds were definitely mature, and just the heads were cut off .... of the stalks that were the tallest.   The seed heads on the shorter stalks are still there. 
Generally a crop matures to a fairly even height and this is the height that the grain is harvested from the stalks, thus eliminating or separating a very high % of the grain from the straw, particularly with a combine harvester.  On top of this, I don't personally consider grain to be a problem weed in my garden, unlike Timothy, Quack Grass, or other perennial rhizome spreading grasses, and I do not experience any, or virtually none, when I have used straw for mulch in the past.  I get the spoiled hay for my garden simply because I can get a massive amount of mulch for a great deal cheaper than getting straw.  The hay might be more nutritionally dense, so I do gain there, but if I was intending to go for as few weed seeds in my surface layers, I would definitely choose straw.

My experience is directly reflected in the posts by Ross and Travis, and to some extent by R. Ranson (though I have not the fiber experience, I do have some understanding of the utility of straw as opposed to hay).  To add to this when I googled for a definition of straw, all that I found seemed to verify this particular definition, and not your's Paul.  
 
Roberto pokachinni
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The feed terminology that has changed for me has been "silage".

Years ago when you fed silage, you were feeding grass silage, chopped up with a purpose built chopper. Today with that invention of "baleage", or green hay that is wrapped in white plastic to ensile it, many people mistakenly call that "silage". To me it is just plain wrong terminology, but since I cannot some to win, and every time I say I use "silage" people are like, "yes I feed out those bales too", I have learned to just give in and call it "green chop." It is wrong because green chop only stems from flail choppers designed to cut and feed out that day, but there too I must just give in to a changing world.
  from what I understand the term silage comes from farmers historically putting the chopped green material in a silo in order to store and ferment it.  In modern terms we see people plastic wrapping green 'damp' bales; changing through fermentation-and in many people's minds increasing- it's nutrition to the same effect.  The term silage comes from the word silo, but it's modern use as coming from these plastic wrapped bales seems to be naturally derived.  The plastic wrap serves the same purpose of denying the green material of oxygen and thus allowing for fermenting and is the modern silo in this effect, and so the people who consider this baled material silage (as an end product) are not as far from the truth as you seem to think, since it's the product that has essentially stayed the same, in my opinion, if not my limited experience.   This also seems to be verified by a fairly quick google definition of the term.

 
r ranson
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What do you guys think haylage means these days?  I know the circa 1920s meaning for Suffolk, but back then there was a lot of regional variation.  I have a feeling that the meaning today is quite different.
 
Travis Johnson
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:
The term silage comes from the word silo...


This is a common misconception. Sileage does NOT come from the word silo, but rather "to ensile", which means "to prepare and store (fodder) so as to induce conversion to silage". The modern day silo was named due to the purpose it was intended for..."to ensile fodder". It is interesting to note that in other countries that ensile fodder, they do so not in silos, but rather in "clamps".

All this is pretty much just splitting hairs I know, but it sure mucks up the waters in terms of terminology.

Myself I am not a big fan of baleage because of the plastic wrap. It is used only once and 9 out of 10 farms that use it have streams of it flapping in the breeze when heavy winds carried it to their fences where it got caught and is flapping away. I prefer instead grass and corn silage for a lot of reasons; and while it is true a bunker style type of ensiling uses plastic too, it is reusable for several years.

I guess my biggest question is, considering how easy silage is to put up (corn or grass silage), why more homesteaders seem to be stuck on the notion that you have to feed hay to livestock? It would save many farms a lot of money every year.
 
Mark Clipsham
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Sometimes you guys sound like scientists describing love. A mouse would like it if you built your bale house with hay cause it is good to eat not so with straw - your animals would die of malnutrition if you tried to feed that to them). That having been said there are houses in Germany that are hundreds of years old built with hay - but not bales. I guess you have a lot of cats hang around. Don't let either get wet, unlike silage that needs moisture and bacteria.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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So if you have it correct, Travis, then Silo comes from Silage, and not the other way around...   ... Well I stand corrected.  Funny, it seems that the word is French, just by how it's spelled, and ensilage really looks French, and when I think about it, with the French word for saw being scie, pronouced like see, and thinking that traditionally hay was cut with a scythe, there might be something to it just coming from a root of these words.
All this is pretty much just splitting hairs I know, but it sure mucks up the waters in terms of terminology. 
  I agree.   
Myself I am not a big fan of baleage because of the plastic wrap. It is used only once and 9 out of 10 farms that use it have streams of it flapping in the breeze when heavy winds carried it to their fences where it got caught and is flapping away.
I feel the same way.  Some locals burn it after use... and I'm down wind.  I'm considering calling the authorities the next time they do, as I just don't know how to approach them about how wrong it is.
I guess my biggest question is, considering how easy silage is to put up (corn or grass silage), why more homesteaders seem to be stuck on the notion that you have to feed hay to livestock?
  My understanding is that because it is often made from rich green material, and fermented, it is often too rich, and this can be dangerous if not mixed with hay and straw.  Cattle bloat and die, from my understanding.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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What do you guys think haylage means these days?  I know the circa 1920s meaning for Suffolk, but back then there was a lot of regional variation.  I have a feeling that the meaning today is quite different.
  When I was looking up silage and hay, I came across a few definitions for haylage, so... hard to say.
 
Travis Johnson
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You are indeed correct Roberto, it can cause bloat and kill. I have suffered some losses from that. On the big dairy farm they lost 100 head of heifers to bloat due to chopping silage in the rain. They had a few acres down, then it started to rain, so they chopped through it just to get it done. Bad move. they put it aside in the bunker (also known as a clamp or silo), and when they fed it out, the death began. But I have lost sheep to bloat on pasture too, so it really is not just a silage thing, its a management thing.

My greatest loss was to Listeroisis, also called Circling Disease. It came from silage that spoiled from lack of compaction. A nice prize Suffolk Ram Lamb died of it.

While it would be easy to say "stay away from silage", I am not sure that is the case. It has plenty of good things going for it, including:

More tonnage per acre of yield
Less equipment costs
Poor fields can be utilized
More palatable feed
Far less weather dependent (can be made on in a day and on cloudy days without a 4 day window of clear skies like hay)
Easier to feed out
Economical to produce (because of all the above factors)

That is why the big dairy farmers use it, but...and this is a huge but...it takes good management to pull off. For me personally, it is the reduced equipment costs , 1 day production, and economy that make it worthwhile.

(Great discussion by the way, and I have enjoyed everything you have brought to the discussion. I love and live farming so this is of huge interest to me. Thank you!)


 
Travis Johnson
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Mark Clipsham wrote:Sometimes you guys sound like scientists describing love.


You are absolutely right, and it is one thing I love about modern agriculture and one thing I hate; and that simply is, today, as never before, everything in farming has turned into science.

I love it because it brings about great discussions like Roberto and I have had, and knowing for every person that posts, another 10-50 people "lurk" and read it without replying, I know there is farm education going on behind the scenes that people probably appreciate, but do not comment upon. Perhaps for some of these people they are not in a position right now to switch from hay to silage, but at least they have an idea that the option exists.

But yet I dislike that everything is scientific now because for some people they feel intimidated. There is no reason to be. When the dross is skimmed off this entire thread, raising sheep is essentially the same as it was 9000 years ago, and silage is nothing more then the equivalent of making sauerkraut for livestock.

Still it is easy to overfeed an animal and then complain that the profit is just not there, but yet another to just meet the nutritional needs of an animal and produce a decent profit margin. It is akin to engineering. When the Empire State Building was constructed, it was so overbuilt that it could rise another 100 stories, yet today taller skyscrapers are built, but with a lot less steel. They are not inferior, just engineered to safety carry the loads. It is the same way with agriculture, and it can be frustrating to hear homesteaders give up on account of expensive hay requirements that they buy, when they could produce their own feed from corn and grass grown on their own land.
 
David Gould
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Hay goes in the left boot , straw in the right one how else would us country bumpkins know our left from right



Seriously , here in the Great Britain , ( aka the UK or sometimes England )  hay is a  longish grass with a fairly high sugar content that has intentionally been cut whilst the sugar levels are high.  It's then dried out naturally or artificially or processed to retain the sugars and used as a valuable semi natural animal feed.

Straw is to our farmers a bye product or the wheat , oats , barley & rye grain industry .  It is cut & thrashed when the stems are dry the seed head is hard & ripe & the stems are low in sugars ,.  Such straw is often used as bedding for all manner of animals . As it's been thrashed there are not many seeds in it if your lucky .
over this side of th pond  the only straw we seem to have with much of feed use appears to be fairly long stem bales up barley straw . We often let the housed animals graze on it in their quarters .

Besides the scientific lab work& farm research done , as a county boy of rather advanced years I think it is possibly mainly used to help those ruminant creatures stomach's work better whilst been fed on the more unnatural concentrated formula factory made foods .
Possibly the animals eating it think of it as a comfort food , for cud chewing is only done when the creature is in a fairly stress free state of mind .  Farmed rabbits also seem to enjoy  access to barley straw in their nest boxes and also to nibble on whilst in there nest boxes .
On our small farm set up we had 90 New Zealand crossed Californian breeding does running on it as well as a dried formula feed mix .   Their fecal pellets were firm & light coloured compared to those of some of our friends meat rabbits that were only fed on a factory formula with no barley straw or grass hay . We rarely had stock with any signs of diarrhea where as most of our our friends stock nearly always had at least a couple of cases of it .

Harvested hay may or may not contain zillions of seeds , for it all depends on how it was harvested .

Grazed natural hay & grasses  that a horse eats au natural does contain a heck of a lot of viable seeds & because they are not ruminants the seeds often pass straight through the horse to give you zillions of weeds when they germinate . .
 
Jason Howell
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The simplest and most accurate definition Imo is straw is made from grains eg.(barley,wheat) after they have been harvested of their seeds. Hay is usually referring to Alfalfa although it can have grasses in it. There is such a thing as grass hay. When using the term "hay" I usually find that it is referring to animal feed. Straws can be feed to animals if it is substituted with hay or something more nutritional.
 
David Gould
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Jason Howell wrote:The simplest and most accurate definition Imo is straw is made from grains eg.(barley,wheat) after they have been harvested of their seeds.
Hay is usually referring to Alfalfa although it can have grasses in it. There is such a thing as grass hay. When using the term "hay" I usually find that it is referring to animal feed. Straws can be feed to animals if it is substituted with hay or something more nutritional.



Hi Jason , thanks for pointing out that in the USA "  hay " tends to be Alfalfa , I didn't know that , we'd just call it forage for the horses /cattle etc.

No wonder some of my friends on the , " All new square foot gardening site "  hit a few wrong keys when I said ( talking of making a quality home mad e compost ) horse muck out the stable with bedding is usually full of weed seeds  .
  Now I can see why some of them were getting rather hot under the collar  saying , " Use hay as a mulch ......... it's fantastic ".
 
Katie Kerschner
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Travis Johnson wrote:
Roberto pokachinni wrote:The term silage comes from the word silo...


This is a common misconception. Sileage does NOT come from the word silo, but rather "to ensile", which means "to prepare and store (fodder) so as to induce conversion to silage". The modern day silo was named due to the purpose it was intended for..."to ensile fodder". It is interesting to note that in other countries that ensile fodder, they do so not in silos, but rather in "clamps".

All this is pretty much just splitting hairs I know, but it sure mucks up the waters in terms of terminology.

Myself I am not a big fan of baleage because of the plastic wrap. It is used only once and 9 out of 10 farms that use it have streams of it flapping in the breeze when heavy winds carried it to their fences where it got caught and is flapping away. I prefer instead grass and corn silage for a lot of reasons; and while it is true a bunker style type of ensiling uses plastic too, it is reusable for several years.

I guess my biggest question is, considering how easy silage is to put up (corn or grass silage), why more homesteaders seem to be stuck on the notion that you have to feed hay to livestock? It would save many farms a lot of money every year.


"Silo" came before "silage." "Silo" is a loanword from Spanish, probably coming from the ancient Greek "siros" or Latin "sirum," both meaning a pit for storing corn/grain. "Ensile" comes from the French "ensiler" (to put in a silo; they have that loanword from Spanish as well), and then you have the derivative "ensilage" (both English and French) and its respective alteration "silage."
 
Travis Johnson
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Thanks Katie for clarifying, as it seems Roberto has been vindicated. Sorry Roberto I guess I am the one that stands corrected.

As for hay, I just filled out my annual crop report for the USDA and they several categories listed for hay. Hay-Alfalfa. Timothy and other grass hays. Wild hay, etc. But I think adding alfalfa to the conversation depends on where you are from. Over on Haytalk it is just understood that alfalfa is in "hay" because they are selling it to customers, but many live in the mid-west. Here in Maine...because of the cold temps where alfalfa can be winter-killed, it can only be planted in high percentages where the wind dos not blow the snow off. My fields...10% because they face North and I am on a very high hill. In other words no snow cover. So here "hay" means timothy and other type grasses. If it has alfalfa in it, you make sure to tell people that before you sell it.
 
Krofter Young
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Growing up in Kansas in the 50's and 60's as a fourth generation member of an extended wheat and cattle farming family, I'm going to throw my two cents worth into this conversation. It seems more specific terminology needs to be used here.  Straw is the stem that's left over after most cereal grains have been harvested and the grains removed.  The reason I say 'most' is because although corn, milo, sorghum and millet are also cereal grains, their stalks are are too beefy to be considered straw.  The common cereal crops that produce straw are wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice.  Where it gets confusing is that both cereal grains and pasture grasses are members of Graminae - the grass family.  But pasture grasses do not make a hollow stem as does the previously mentioned straw grains. It's this hollow stem that makes straw such a good medium for straw bale construction - insulation. 
Hay is grass, not cereal grains, not alfalfa.  All grasses - including cereal grains - are monocots, meaning one leaf at germination.  Alfalfa is a dicot - two leaves at germination.  Alfalfa is pretty much at the opposite end of the botanical kingdom.  However, it's common to hear those not steeped in multiple generations of agriculture to use the term hay when referring to alfalfa. 
Another defining aspect is that hay typically comes from perennial grasses whereas straw comes from annual grains.
Traditionally, in that vast farm belt of the Midwestern US, alfalfa has been called alfalfa, perennial grass has been called hay, the narrow stems from annual cereal grains has been called straw and the stems of corn, milo, millet and sorghum are called stalks.
 
Travis Johnson
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I respectfully disagree.

While most pasture grasses are harvested early in order to glean the highest protein content possible, if left and harvested at a later date (a requirement if you are in some Wildlife Incentive Programs of the USDA), those pastures grass stems will go hollow like cereal grains. I can think of orchard grass, timothy, and pereniel rye just off the top of my head. Granted they are not legumes like clover and alfalfa, but they hollow stem out and are cool season grasses that are the mainstay for livestock owners; as pasture and winter fodder both. Even dandelions hollow stem out, and while I would not want a field of it due to its low yield, a lot of people are shocked when they realize just how much protein is in dandelions at a young stage.
 
Krofter Young
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Travis - While it's true that the seed stem of a few species of perennial grasses can be somewhat hollow, that hollowness is minuscule compared to the hollowness found in straw.  It's common knowledge among builders of straw bale houses that only cereal grain straw has enough hollowness to provide the desired insulative effect.  Besides, in my 63 years of agriculture I've never heard any of the farmers in my home town refer to perennial grass as straw.
 
Travis Johnson
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Krofter Young wrote:Besides, in my 63 years of agriculture I've never heard any of the farmers in my home town refer to perennial grass as straw.


That is because it is a regional thing as I mentioned earlier.

Where I live...Maine...where cereal grains are not raised as a major commodity, the difference of hay versus straw in definition, is far different. Here mixed grasses for pasture or as winter fodder if cut much later, is dried out, and lacks nutrients is considered "straw", but I could see in the grain belt that this would not be the case because you have a more specific product available.

This is no different then out west where loggers in pulling their wood through the woods call it "yarding", where as in Maine we call doing the same act "twitching". Neither is wrong, just different vernacular.

The danger in straw versus hay is not in splitting hairs regarding regional terminology, but in knowing what the two contain nutritionally. It matters little if it is cereal grain straw after it has been threshed by a combine in Kansas, or grass ground that has aged and dried up in Maine. Nutritionally by itself, it cannot support an animal nutritionally, yet both can settle the stomachs of ruminant animals. The intent here is not to debate regionalism back and forth, but to ensure those new to livestock nutrition do not get confused, see straw is far cheaper then quality hay, and think they can feed their livestock on the cheaper feed.

 
Krofter Young
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Travis - No argument here about the lack of nutrition in straw (from cereal grains).  However, I would say that not all late season grass is worthless.  Some species retain nutrition better than others. In a pinch, even the lesser species will provide more nutrition than straw - unless it's moldy.  Having said all that, old hay and even straw CAN feed the gut microbiome in ruminates.  The microbes then produce fatty acids like butyric acid which ruminants can then make use of. But this also occurs with good hay and other forage plants.  My Nubian dairy goats will produce milk with a higher butterfat content if the forage they are on is somewhat coarse, verses a diet of very fine grass or alfalfa.
So if anyone is reading this thinking they should give their livestock straw to help feed its gut microbiome, don't.  Especially for lactating dairy animals (even more so for cheese makers), it's better to make sure they're getting some coarse fodder or forage mixed in with fine stuff. If the animals are penned don't give them fresh green fodder one day and dry fodder the next.  Doing so will throw off their microbiome enough to make them sick.  Better to mix the two together.  Best is to have them on pasture where they can adapt slowly to the seasonal changes of native forage.
Regarding terminology; I've done agricultural projects in Kansas, Texas, N.M. California, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Mexico and I have an agronomist friend in France.  In none of those places is perennial grass ever referred to as straw.  Must just be a Maine thing.
 
Jay Frenier
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This is like researching what "sweet water" truly means in our age. What these words refer to is changing. It may be necessary to make alternate words for specific materials for specific uses.
 
Mark Clipsham
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Perchance the issue is having a global conversation about a local/regional "event". I had a good understanding of the difference, now I have an even better one. I grew up in Kansas and now live in Iowa - it's all "next door". Hard to believe animals would eat wheat straw but they sure do go after corn stalks. Yum.
 
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In my experience, "hay" is animal food named specifically:  oat hay, alfalfa, timothy, mountain, I never hear anyone talk about generic "hay", because of the variability between different kinds of hay.  When buying, I ask if the oat hay was cut "in the dough stage".  (What I want is oat hay cut in the milk stage, sweeter, oats stay on the stem, greener, more protein.)  It matters what animal I am going to feed, whether it will nourish them, whether they will find it palatable. 

I was glad to see the mention of the hollow nature of "straw".  It is my experience that straw is a hollow stem baled after the grain has been harvested off the top, I expect very little to NO seed in the straw, and seldom find significant amounts.  I think "straw as hollow stem" must have been widespread in its usage in former years because, what do we call that plastic thing we drink through?  I imagine that in the days before the plastic drinking straw, and the paper one before that, that people used "straw" (section between nodes of hollow grain stem) as drinking straws.  That's kind of how the English language works, though French and German have ways to try to combat the changing of word usages.

I grieve the loss of specificity in the English language as any word can be used for new usage, losing the original use of the word, but that is the living nature of the English language.  I guess people can bale up pine needles and call it "straw", but it seems better to call it pine needle bedding, just as wood shavings are baled up and called wood shavings, though that product is often used for animal bedding.  ( I hope no one decides to use pine needle straw to build a straw bale house, but it could happen)
 
Sharon Carson
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I used to by wheat straw out of the feild for bedding and mulch till the farmer went to round bales It also had herbicides and pesticides used on it . I switched to bedding my horses with pine sawdust and it is better at keeping them dry. They would eat the wheat straw as well. It is far lest work with the sadust and the compost is richewr in manures . When using old hay for mulch, I let it get wet so the seed rots before I spread it as mulch . I would not suggest using wheat staw for mulch because of the herbicides used on it. IT is almost impossible around here to buy straw in small bales that does not have chemicals used on it.
 
Al Freeman
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It has been "hinted" in several posts, so I'll just come right out and say it.

Where I'm from (north Texas) "hay" is a combination of grasses and depending on what you're feeding and for what purpose, those grasses are varied.

"Straw" on the other hand, is cut and bundled (and commonly dried and square-baled) stalks or stems of just ONE cultivar, such as "oat" straw.  The 'open' or 'cut' ends are bailed with those on either of two opposite sides.  When stacked with the cut ends up and down, rain goes right through for the most part and if you're using bales of straw in a raised garden, this is the orientation you want.  Any other orientation will cause the bales to retain water and rot.

Hay can be square or round-baled, but straw is seldom found in any form except square-baled.
 
Sharon Carson
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Al -
I guess different areas are different . There is NO oat straw available here and sqare bale wheat or barley straw costs almost as much as hay and is rare . The farmers either round bale it or let it stay on the ground for the no till chemical farming method they do .When I used to spread the wheat straw there used to.be a lot of wheat that would sprout . I now like to let any baled hay or straw get wet to allow the seed or grain to sprout before I spread it as mulch  . The exception is spoiled alfalfa hay. It has no seed in it and is a great way to add nitrogen to plants .
 
Mark Clipsham
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It has been my understanding it is possible to specify "weed free" staw.
 
r ranson
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Mark Clipsham wrote:It has been my understanding it is possible to specify "weed free" staw.


I would be interested to know how they do this without the use of herbicides.

I used some commercial barley straw a few years ago as mulch.  Almost three years later and nothing grows there and I find out later that they used a herbicide that doesn't compost or degrade over time.  I'm very keen to avoid the same mistake again. 
 
Mark Clipsham
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It has been some time since I was looking at this - It probably came from a seed harvesting operation that was more carefully done. When they harvest seed corn they use small combines and leave the corn on the cob for example; different is different. If there is market there is usually a source. You should see some of the stuff available for research. 
 
Sharon Carson
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There is finally a local source for organic hay and straw . Some of it is transitional but at least it is not sprayed . Its an hour away and cost more as does anything organic . It is hard to sell your eggs veg or meat locally at higher prices though. You are competing with production agriculture . I am grateful for the few local farmers who have switched to organic methods and are not selling to the industrial market but rather selling local. My sister has a certified organic grain farm but you can't buy anything from her . It is all under contract and is sold out of state by the tractor trailer load. Not the world I grew up in....
 
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