When it comes to straw vs hay for your backyard chickens and livestock, there are definite advantages to each. We raise horses and ducks on our small hobby farm, and we’ve been raising chickens for eggs for years. We buy both straw and hay at our local feed store. You might ask why we buy both — what’s the difference, after all, when it comes to straw vs hay? They look similar and both come tied up in bales, but hay and straw are two very different types of harvested material, each with a very different purpose on a farm.
Straw vs Hay: What is Hay?
Let’s start with hay. Hay is primarily a livestock feed. There are various different types of hay available such as timothy, alfalfa, etc. but hay is generally grasses, and also some grains, leaves, and legumes that have been harvested, dried and baled for use as animal fodder (or feed) before the seeds have formed (the formation of the seeds lowers hay’s nutritional value).
Horses, cows, sheep, and dairy goats all eat hay, especially in the winter months when there is no fresh grass available to graze. Smaller animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs also eat hay. Hay is usually a shade of light green and smells good — like a sunny field on a warm summer day.
Prices for hay depend on where you live, the time of year and the supply of hay available. Right now in our area, hay is selling for nearly $9/square bale. Round bales are also available, at far more economical prices, for larger herds of livestock.
Straw vs Hay: What is Straw?
Straw is primarily livestock bedding. Straw is a by-product of the harvest, usually the stalks and stems of the cereal grains or grasses such as oats, barley, rye or wheat, which are harvested after the plants are dead, so straw is far drier and doesn’t smell nearly as good, although I think it does still have a nice, albeit it more faint, farm-y smell! Occasionally there will be some kernels left at the tips of the stalks (the chickens love to eat those!), but straw is mostly hollow stems. Although goats can eat straw, there isn’t as much nutritional value in straw as there is in hay.
Straw is far less expensive than hay in our area, selling for under $4/square bale.
So logically, we use straw and hay for their intended purposes. Since hay is more nutritious but more expensive, we buy hay solely for the horses to eat. Since straw is cheaper, dried and therefore less likely to mold or attract moisture, we buy straw for the backyard chicken coop and nesting boxes. Being hollow, straw also provides more of a cushion for the eggs in the nesting boxes and for the chickens to hop off the roosts onto. Because the hollow tubes retain warm air, straw is also an excellent way to keep your coop warmer in the winter.
Stacking straw bales along the inside walls and allowing for a nice deep layer on the floor in the winter is an inexpensive way to insulate your coop. Filling your chicken nesting boxes with straw can help prevent frozen eggs.
Some say that straw can attract chicken mites to your coop. I don’t agree. I have been using straw in our coop in warm, humid Virginia (optimal mite breeding ground!) for more than five years and never had any problem whatsoever. Mites and lice feast on blood and skin tissue, not straw. They are not going to live inside straw tubes for very long, if at all. A good diatomaceous earth use (food grade) is to sprinkle it on the floor of our coop and in the nesting boxes as a natural way to kill parasites and also use lots of dried and fresh herbs in the coop which help repel them. Bottom line, straw is a far better choice for coop bedding than hay for us both because of its price and far lower moisture content.
So that’s why we buy both straw and hay. Hay for the horses to eat and straw for the chicken coop and nesting boxes. I do recommend using straw in your backyard chicken coop, but if you choose to use hay, for economical or logistic/convenience, just be sure to check it frequently and remove any wet or damp hay to prevent mold or mildew from building up in your coop litter.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.