Straw and hay bales can look very similar on the surface. When they're examined a little more closely, however, the differences between the two types of bales become obvious. These differences can affect how the bales are used, stored and transported, so a basic understanding of straw and hay bales can be of benefit to farmers, gardeners, landscapers and even construction workers.
The difference between hay bales and straw bales derives from what they are made of. Hay bales are comprised primarily of grasses. These grasses still have grain or seeds attached. Straw bales are comprised of only the stalks of plants, such as grain plants; as a rule the stalks do not have seeds or grains attached, although some seeds or grains may remain due to the inability of machinery to remove them all.
Straw and hay bales have very different uses. Because hay has grains and seeds in it, it is used as a food source for animals such as horses and cows. Straw, because it lacks the seeds and grains, lacks nutritive value and cannot be used in this way. Instead, it is used for mulch, bedding, erosion prevention, and even used with other construction materials in the making of walls.
Hay bales, because they are intended for use as animal food, can be seen as the primary crop. The grasses are cut down from a field so that they can be eaten. Straw bales are made from the remnants of a crop harvest--for example, if a farmer grows wheat, combines remove the wheat from the wheat plant, leaving the stalks, which then are collected later and put into bales. This makes them a secondary, rather than primary, crop.
Hay bales are made from grasses that have not had a chance to dry out--they are cut down while still alive. Straw bales, however, are made from stalks that often are left on the ground at least for a short time after the primary harvest; they dry out in the sun before they are collected. As a result, hay bales have a much higher moisture content than straw bales do. This difference in moisture content makes hay bales more likely to combust, because the moisture on the inside of the bale causes decomposition of the plant material, which releases heat.
Size and Weight
Hay bales and straw bales can vary in size and weight. Generally speaking, because of the higher moisture content in hay bales, hay bales weigh more than straw bales. However, this is not a consistent rule, as some bailing machines pack more tightly than others do.
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