by Haley Ruffner
28 September 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628
Straw has many uses in agriculture, from bedding to feed to erosion control. It can be used to make hats, as a biofuel, as a building material, in ponds to control algae growth, and even as packaging. Straw is the by-product left over after grain or cereal crops have been harvested, meaning that it has no seed heads in it. This makes it ideal for erosion control or gardening projects where grain plant growth is not desirable—hay, on the other hand, contains seed heads that can sprout and grow if moisture levels are sufficient. Straw is comprised of the stems left behind after harvest and hence is much more mold-resistant and dry than hay. Hay is ideally harvested with high leaf retention and soft, less mature stems for increased nutrition and palatability for animals, which means that it’s also much more sensitive to environmental conditions and can mold easily. While hay and straw might look similar baled and sitting out in a stackyard, they serve different purposes.
Straw bedding is one of the most popular bedding options for a variety of animals. It composts better than wood shavings, making it easier to dispose of and less wasteful. While it is less absorbent than shavings, it is also less dusty and can be a better bedding choice for animals’ respiratory health and usually won’t aggravate horses with allergies. It allows urine to drain away underneath it, leaving a drier and more comfortable environment than shavings do. Breeding farms with broodmares almost always use straw over shavings for foaling out because it decreases chances of infection, is less abrasive, and is easier to clean off both the mare and foal. While some people prefer not to bed with straw due to concerns with horses eating it or additional time required to clean stalls, at some venues like racetracks, straw bedding is required.
While some horse owners have concerns about their horses eating too much straw if they use it for bedding, many cattle farmers purchase straw for the purpose of feeding it to increase fiber in the diet. Oat and barley straws are palatable for most horses, and some nutritionists even recommend feeding it to horses that require calorie-controlled diets—its low nutrient value means that overweight horses can be given straw to supplement their forage and allow for grazing without overfeeding them on a richer feed. This practice is much more common in European countries, where feeding straw along with hay has been a staple of the equine diet for centuries. Whereas excessive straw consumption (especially when fed with no other forage options or not enough water) can cause impaction in horses’ delicate digestive systems, many dairy farmers will include straw in a TMR (total mixed ration) mixer to reduce dietary potassium and prevent over-conditioning. Oat, wheat, and barley straws are the most common varieties used in feeding cattle, but less common straws like canola straw may be used as well.
Due to its lack of seed heads, straw is required in many commercial erosion control projects. The federal regulation SWPPP, or stormwater pollution prevention plan, is a set of rules geared towards making construction sites environmentally safe and can result in hefty fines on construction sites where erosion control measures, like applying straw, are not taken. Some projects, like those in national forest lands, even require certified weed-free straw, which guarantees that no foreign or invasive seeds are introduced to protected lands. Because it can absorb moisture, it is the ideal material to cover newly-seeded soil—it both prevents the seeds from washing away and retains moisture to encourage germination. Straw can also be applied after wildfires to mitigate soil loss.
Whether or not you’re involved in agriculture, it’s likely you still use and encounter straw, whether it be a bale on your front porch for a fall decoration, spread in your yard to protect new grass seed, or combined with bioplastic as packaging material. Although straw is a by-product of the grain industry, it has a myriad of uses and is valuable to horse and cattle farmers alike.
Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.
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