Friday, December 23, 2011

Hay is for Horses, Straw is for ....??

Ok, so this blog isn’t exactly a human “foodie” but rather an animal “foodie” article.  But it IS a frequently asked question on the farm… one I got the other day so I figured it would make for a good blog –

What is the difference between hay and straw?

The simple answer – Hay is for eating and straw is for sleeping. Hay is a type of fodder or feed-stuff for livestock (horses, cows, sheep, goats, etc…). Straw is mainly used for bedding though it can also be used as mulch. It is edible, but not very tasty and not very nutritious either.

Where does it come from?
Hay comes from either grasses or legumes or can be a mixture of the two. Grass hay in our region is typically Timothy or Orchard grass. Some people think growing hay is just letting a field grow up whatever is there and then baling it. On the contrary, hay fields just like pasture, are seeded specifically to grow a “crop” of hay used to feed livestock. Legumes are another nutritious source of food for livestock. Legumes grown for hay are typically alfalfa and clover. Hay made from legumes is higher in calories, protein, Vitamin A and Calcium and so is more often used in animals with higher energy needs such as dairy cows that produce milk, mares that are nursing, or race horses. Grass hay tends to be lower in calories and protein and is good for general feeding of mature livestock or animals that don’t have higher protein or energy needs (like our overweight Belgian horse Lily who is on a weight reduction diet!) So while I’m not a clinical dietitian working in a hospital anymore, I still put to good use my knowledge of nutrition and apply it to our animals! Just like we humans, all livestock need well balanced, nutritious diets in order to be healthy and productive. Hay is a main source of nutrition during the winter months when pasture is unavailable or as in Lily’s case, when pasture is too rich for their waist-lines and they are “dieting”!

Straw is the stem of the plant left over from the harvest of what we call “small grains” – wheat, barley, rye, oats, etc… The combine cuts the grain-head off the stalk and “threshes” (old time term for removes) the seeds from the head of the plant. The seeds go into a storage bin on the combine which when full are transfered to a grain cart or tractor trailer truck. The combine discards the stalks out the back of the machine into nice rows. A tractor and baler then come along those rows and compact and tie the stalks into bales of straw and bales are stored in barns for use as bedding or mulch.

On our farm, we actually stopped making straw several years ago, mainly because we expanded to more than 250 acres of hay production which made storage in the barns pretty tight. Instead of baling straw, our combine is set so that it chops up the stalk as it goes through the machine and spreads it out the back rather than laying it down in a nice row. This adds organic matter to the soil which helps the field stay healthy, helps decrease erosion, and improves the soil for the next crop to be planted.

Straw is a one time annual event baled after harvesting wheat, barley or another small grain. Depending on weather, hay can be baled multiple times throughout the growing season. These increments are called “cuttings”, so if you called our farm for hay, we’d tell you what type of hay we had and which cutting it came from… but currently, we’re sold out! The nutritional value, texture, and overall quality of the hay varies from cutting to cutting.

If you’ve ever heard the saying “Make hay while the sun shines”, it’s because the quality of the hay crop is entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature. It takes 3-5 days to bring in a cutting of hay, assuming sunny days. The process of making hay includes mowing it down and letting it begin to dry, then tedding (fluffing) it so that it gets good air flow and dries properly, then raking it so its ready to be baled. Hay too high in moisture can heat up internally and combust causing a horrible barn fire.

The final question we get sometimes is why are some bales square and others round? We have both types of balers and use them for different purposes. Like I said in a previous blog, it’s all about “market, market, market”. Farmers make the type of hay they have a market for. We have a strong market for small, square bales used by local vets, racetracks, and folks in the region with a few horses or other livestock. If we have hay in the field that gets rained on before we can bale it, we may round bale it. Round bales are useful for farmers with larger numbers of animals to feed who can place a round bale, which weighs more than 1000 pounds, in a field and the livestock have free-choice to graze on it as they want. Small squares are nice for animals, like our Lily, who need smaller portions to control their calorie intake.

I found a really good webpage from another Maryland farmer called “Hey! What’s Hay?” http://www.homestead-farm.net/KidsLinks/Hay.html. It has some nice pictures that show the difference between hay and straw, the types of equipment used to harvest them both.

Hay and straw production are both critical to the health and well-being of livestock on the farm, something all farmers take seriously.

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