Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Straw Primer

There was a big discussion on FaceBook last week about feeding straw to donkeys and horses.  It really brought home to me just how much confusion, misunderstanding and just-plain-wrong information there is about straw and how (or if ) to use it as a feed.  Many people mistakenly believe that straw has no nutritional value whatsoever.  This is not true.  Some types of straw actually have more calories than hay.  Here are a few facts about straw and how it can be used.

What is straw:  straw is the dried stem portion of a cereal grain plant after the grain has been harvested from it.  It can be from any type of grain, however, the three most common types that are acceptable to feed to donkeys are oat, wheat and barley.  You may also occasionally hear about rye straw, but I am not going to talk about it much because it is not suitable to feed to donkeys because it is very high in carbohydrates.  Similarly, peanut hay, sorghum hay, and triticale hay are all generally too high in sugar to be good choices for donkeys.

Why use straw for feed:  The dietary needs of donkeys and horses are not that dissimilar.  They require similar levels of vitamins, minerals and protein.  What is different however, is that donkey are much, MUCH better at extracting the nutrients they need from a wider variety and poorer quality of feed stuffs than horses (or most any other animal) can.   Donkeys are browsers who are designed to constantly eat small amounts of coarse, stemmy, sparse feeds.  Lush green grass and rich hay are not part of their natural diet.  Straw is one of the few feeds available that comes close to mimicking what they should be eating.  It is not perfect and will likely require vitamin/mineral supplementation, but it is a far better choice than grass.

Oat/wheat/barley hay vs. oat/wheat/barley straw:  All three of these grains can be made in to hay rather than straw.  It is the exact same plant, grown the same way, but the hay is harvested differently and at a much earlier stage in the plant's life.  Oat/wheat/barley hay is cut the same way that grass hay is cut and is done when the plant is still green and the grain is just getting ripe.  The grain is left on and is not harvested.  This last is super important because it means that feeding a flake of oat hay includes feeding all that grain.  These hays should be treated more like grain and should not be fed to donkeys or IR horses.

Which straw is best:  Many people believe that straw has no nutritional value.  This is not true, oat straw in particular can have as just as many calories as hay, maybe even more.  It is true that most straw is lower in protein and carbohydrates and higher in fiber than hay, which is exactly what most donkeys need.  If you get a quantity of straw (or hay) I highly recommend having it tested so you know exactly what you are feeding.  All of these straws can be fed to donkeys as long as their teeth are in good condition:
  • Wheat straw is the lowest in nutrients and the least palatable.  It averages about 5% protein and 2-3% NSC (sugar).  This is too low to be used as the only feed source, but it is ideal to supplement higher energy hays that have to be strictly rationed.  Wheat straw can be fed free choice at all times so that the animals always have access to some food, which is absolutely critical to the health and well-being of equines.
  • Barley straw is a bit higher in nutrients and palatability than wheat straw and, as long as it is supplemented with a balanced vitamin/mineral supplement, can provide all the feed that a healthy, adult donkey needs.  Very young, old or lactating donkeys will need a bit more.
  • Oat straw is the highest in nutrients/calories and may need to be rationed.  Oat straw is the most likely to have grain still attached to it and needs to be checked carefully to make sure that you are not accidentally feeding a bunch of grain to a sugar-sensitive animal.  
Can straw be fed to horses:  There is a long held belief that straw should not be fed to horses as it will cause impaction colic.  This generally comes from horses who have been bedded down on straw for the first time and they gorge themselves on it, often causing colic.  Straw should be introduced like any other feed - in small amounts, slowly over several days.  Straw should not be fed to youngsters, older animals or to any horse or donkey who has dental problems.  As long as your adult horse is in good condition with good teeth, straw is fine. Straw does have much higher levels of fiber so you can expect a bit more of the "hay belly" look while feeding it.  This is harmless.

Choosing straw:   Just like hay, straw should be clean, bright and free of dust or mold.  For feeding to donkeys, it should also be free of grain.  If you end up with straw that still has a lot of grain attached to it, you can shake it off onto a tarp before feeding.

Finding straw:  This is the BIG problem with straw.  Depending on where you are, you may find that straw is dirt cheap and easy to get or, it is quadruple the price of good hay or may not be available at any price.  If you live in one of these latter areas, straw may not only be expensive and hard to find, the quality may be very poor as well.  Barley straw may be a great feed choice for donkeys, but if you live in New Jersey and the only straw available is moldy and crappy, then it is not a good choice and you will have to find some other alternative.  If you live in the Midwest and the farm down the road will give you all the straw you want because they have no use for it, rejoice and count your blessings. 

Typically, you will be much better off buying hay or straw directly from a farmer rather than from a feed store.  Many feed stores won't even know what you are talking about if  you go in asking for straw that you can feed to your donkeys.  Ask for bedding straw and inspect it carefully before you buy it.

If you can work with a farmer directly, you will likely get better quality, better prices and better options.  You may have to do some work to find these sources though as they aren't going to be listed on any website or in the phone book.  Ask your local feed store if they can give you a list of growers.  Talk the your local agricultural extension agent.  Call farm equipment or seed dealers and ask them if they know who is growing straw and might be willing to sell some.

It takes a lot of polite and persistent networking, but the best way to buy hay or straw is to establish a relationship with a grower.  Treat that relationship with care and respect.  Always pay in full and on time.  Be understanding that Mother Nature and equipment failures don't care about schedules.  If you want to buy 100 bales of straw and you are dealing with a busy farmer who brings in 20,000 bales as a side line to his other crops you should keep in mind that he is doing you a favor.  It would probably be easier for him to turn you down.  If that farmer is willing to work with you, don't make him regret it.

If you want more information about feeding straw, here are a few trustworthy and accurate links that might help:




Kris Maxwell


  1. that was very interesting. thanks!

  2. Professors in Vet Schools would do well to follow your blog.

  3. My Father and I used to cut Greenfeed {Green oats or barley] and bale it. The livestock we fed it to did well but you do have to be more careful of mouldy flakes with this feed. Also do note that Barley straw has sharper awns from the barley head than the other grains straws and they can cause abscess or sores in the mouths of animal eating it.

  4. Was just checking if anyone has used Standlee Compressed straw. It is very clean more expensive but I only have 2 mini donkey's and just wanted to use it to keep them busy...

    1. Standlee says that their compressed straw is either wheat or barley and it is safe to feed to donkeys.

  5. Interesting as always. Thanks for sharing. I didn't realize there was any nutritional value to straw. I just thought it was roughage and a little something "dry" they could eat when the grass was really lush. Will look further.

  6. What about teff hay for donkeys,we feed bermuda grass it's easier to find in CA

    1. Teff can be good if grown in the right conditions. Like all grass, the sugar content varies widely depending on weather and soil conditions. Drought drastically increases sugar levels of all forage. I would test Teff hay to make sure it is safe. Safe donkey hay should be about 5-6% NSC (that is WSC + Starch on a test). Most grass hay averages 8-12%. Teff hay often ranges from 7-16% so there is a huge variation. A good article on the subject can be found here:


  7. Im trying to find barley straw in Georgia. any recommendations most welcome

  8. Hey very interesting blog!

  9. I can not find Barley anywhere. Only 3 way. Should I feed Wheat? add Timothy and Bermuda?