“So…your animals are grass-fed,” chimed the gentleman. Perhaps he’d been reading one of those modern farming magazines that talked about vegetarian-fed chickens who wear little hand-knitted sweaters in the winter to keep them warm. I wanted to respond with, “pardon me,” but instead was gifted with the idea for Dishing the Dirt.
Note: at a farmers market where you are purchasing raw materials (and hopefully value-added products, too) from a farm, chances are strong that the person you are talking to is the owner/farmer or at the very least, works on the farm helping to grow what you are about to eat.
“When there is snow on the ground, what do your animals eat?” the gentleman asked.
“Hay,” I responded.
“But you just said your animals were grass-fed,” he retorted somewhat huffily.
Hay versus Straw
I’ve noticed that non-farmers use these terms interchangeable. I’ve also witnessed new and beginning farmers making the very expensive mistake of bedding their livestock with premium second-cutting grass hay unaware of the difference.
Simply put, hay is what is fed to the animals and straw is what you bed them with.
In the winter as well as any other time of the year when pastures are inaccessible, hay is fed to the animals. What! The animals are not out in the pastures year-round? Nope.
Hooves (the feet) of cows, sheep, goats and pigs are cloven, meaning split into two. They are also sharp. When they move throughout the pastures their feet dig into the ground pressing organic material, including seeds, into the soil with minimal damage. Some pasture grasses benefit from stresses of being trampled and eaten, signaling them grow. But in the winter when the plants go dormant (when they don’t grow), constant grazing and foot traffic can quickly turn a once-verdant pasture into a mud lot causing damage that could take several growing seasons to repair.
So, what do we do in the winter? We shut the gates to what is often referred to as a “sacrifice lot” and feed hay that has been baled (harvested) on our own farms or purchased from other farmers. This happens at other times during the year when pastures are too wet or flooded, too.
Straw is what is used for bedding. Just as its namesake, the stalks of harvested grains such as wheat and oats are hollow, the airspace creating insulating and wicking properties to help keep the animals warm and dry. Although the animals will chew on straw, picking through it to nibble at any unharvested seed heads, straw has no nutritional value.
Straw is also used by vegetable growers as mulch to insulate tender plants from cold and to create a barrier against weeds.
Straw is often mistaken for hay by the general public as many “hayrides” seats are actually straw bales. Straw tends to be yellow in color while hay is green, however, hay bales left out in the sun can bleach to a yellow color, but that doesn’t make them straw.
For most people, there is no difference between hay and straw, but during this brutal polar vortex weather, I’m counting on both to keep the animals dry, warm and well-fed.