Hey, That’s Not Hay!

759-pumpkins-on-straw-bales-pvI recently saw a sign at a local store advertising hay bales for sale. I looked around and didn’t see any. There were pumpkins, potted mums, gourds, Indian corn, and baled straw— but no hay.  It took everything in me to keep from shouting out, “Hey, that’s not hay! It’s straw.”

I see this mistake often in children’s books, on crafting and decorating blogs, and at craft stores and garden centers. Calling hay straw irritates me. It’s like calling a soccer ball a volleyball or dish soap shampoo. They may look similar at first glance, but they have very different uses.

So, what is the difference between hay and straw?

First, let’s talk about the similarities. Hay and straw are both agriculture products made from plants. They are both cut and formed into big round, big square, or small square bales. But that is where their similarity ends.

The biggest difference between hay and straw is their indented use. To put it simply, hay is food for animals and straw is bedding. The cartoons below illustrate this point well, and should ingrain the difference in your mind forever.

What they are made from is extremely important, too, and explains why each serve a different purpose. Hay is made from the entire plant; leaves, stems, flowers, and sometimes immature seeds. The whole plant has a much greater nutritional value than just dried stems. Hay is cut before the seeds have matured. This keeps valuable nutrients in the stalks and makes a nutrient-rich feed for horses, cattle, and other ruminant animals.

hay in fieldThe nutrient and protein value of hay will vary depending on what plant it is made from and when it is harvested. The fiber content of hay increases as it grows, while the protein content diminishes. Most of the protein in hay is in the leaves, while the stocks are richer in fiber.

Plants grown for hay can be divided into two categories: legumes and grasses. Legumes generally have a higher protein and calcium content than grasses because they have a higher leaves to stalk ratio. Alfalfa and clover are the two most common legumes grown for hay. Grasses used for hay include rye, timothy, orchard, and fescue. Farmers specifically plant these crops to make hay, and usually get about three cuttings of hay off one field per year.

baling-straw-360x238Straw, on the other hand, is a byproduct of cereal grains like wheat, barley, and oats. When the seeds of these crops are harvested the stems, or stalks, are left behind. Most of the stalks’ nutrients were depleted while producing seed, leaving little nutritional value as a feed source. The stalks can, however, be baled and used for straw.

Straw makes a good, inexpensive bedding for livestock. The dry stalks absorb moisture from manure, and provide a soft, clean place for animals to rest. Straw is also commonly used as garden mulch, to help establish new grass, and for outdoor décor.

If you are shopping for straw, be sure to look for golden yellow-brown bales made of stems only.  Hay is light green and include leaves and dried flowers or seed heads.

I highly recommend checking out Lucus County’s Hay Bale Art Contest to see a creative and entertaining use of bales. This annual fall event in south central Iowa includes more than 20 giant sculptures made of bales of all shapes and sizes. My kids and I visited a few years ago, and they are still talking about it.

-Cindy

 

 

 

Why Do They Do That? – Burning Fields and Ditches

This time of year you may see billowing plumes of smoke rising up across Iowa. Menacing blazes are seen by motorists traveling the state roads. Ditches are being burned and in some cases entire fields get burned. But, why?

Seventy-one years of Smokey the Bear have ingrained in us that fires are bad. We see their destructive power when they level a house or destroy a forest. But, throughout history fires have been an essential tool in land management.

042115_Burn_Meier1Each spring farmers and other land managers use controlled burns (also called prescribed burns) to put nutrients back into the soil and revitalize the land. These intentionally set fires serve a valuable purpose. At the end of the growing season plants will leave a lot of dead matter above the ground where it does not easily decompose. Fire breaks down that plant matter and releases the nutrients so they are available to the soil and can help promote future plant growth. These prescribed burns are often applied to road side ditches where dead plant matter can build up quickly.

Fires can also help seed new plants. Many seeds have a thick outer shell that needs to be broken before the seed will start to germinate. Fire can break this shell and then the seed ends up laying in a nutrient rich bed to start growing. Healthy soil is the primary goal of using fire as a tool. Secondary goals of prescribed burn include brush and weed control. Fires can even help control ticks and parasitic worms that might infect livestock that graze on the land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANative Americans also used prescribed burns to manage grasslands long before we started farming in Iowa. Native Americans saw the improved plant growth after a fire and how the animals they hunted gravitated to this new growth. They used fire to manage the grasslands and ensure the herd health of the animals they hunted.

Farmers Take Great Care

stelprdb5294229Prescribed burns or controlled burns are effective because they are controlled. Land managers set fires in the spring when the ground is still wet and there is high humidity. This makes the fire easy to control and direct. It is also important to pick a day with very little wind. Too much wind can make the fire large and uncontrollable.

Land owners doing prescribed burns are careful to never leave them unattended. They carefully monitor the fire in progress. They often work with the local fire department to ensure the fire stays under control. And of course they are sure to obtain the appropriate permissions and permits necessary to do prescribed burns.

grassWhile fire might initially cause ugly, charred pieces of land, it is an important tool to create lush, rich vegetation.

– Will