Is Hay Biodegradable? (+ Essential Facts You Should Know)

Megan

If you have ever driven through the countryside, you have seen bales of hay in the fields.

Golden hay bales are an iconic part of farm life, but hay can be a viable part of your life as well.

You should learn more about what hay is, and its place in our environment.

To ground our discussion, we will look more closely at the following points:

  • Definition
  • Uses
  • Biodegradability
  • Decomposition
  • Composting
  • Organic
  • Best disposal methods

What Is Hay and How Is It Made?

Before deeper discussion, we need to know what hay is. Hay is made from grass. The grass is cut from the field, laid out to dry and stored.

In farming, hay is usually a food source for livestock. This is why hay bales litter the countryside.

Hay can be made from various plants. In a popular farming state like Iowa, the most common sources for hay are alfalfa and clover. However, the source of hay will naturally vary depending on local plants.

Hay is widely produced. If you look at the state of Iowa, 910,000 acres of hay were harvested in 2016. That yielded 3,210,000 tons of hay for a value of $294,915,000.

What Is Hay Used For?

Given how much hay is produced in the United States, you may wonder about its uses. If you have not been on a farm, then you may not truly understand hay’s versatility.

In many cases, hay is grown as a source of food for animals. It can be used to feed horses, sheep and more.

Hay can be used in other contexts as well. It can be used as bedding for animals. It can also be used to help manage animal waste.

However, hay has uses outside of livestock. Hay is often applied as a ground cover to grow plants in a garden or grass in the yard. It can also be used in mulch form.

Decoratively, hay is festive. During autumn, hay is a popular outdoor decoration, and it can be a source of outdoor seating.

Some people even leverage their hay for recreation. Hayrides are quintessential fall fun, and haystacks can be used for games or temporary outdoor structures.

What Is the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

Hay is commonly confused with straw. While hay and straw look similar, they are actually distinct.

While hay is purposefully grown, straw is a byproduct. There are grass fields specifically dedicated to the production of hay, but straw is produced during seed or grain production.

In hay production, the grass is cut and dried. Straw production, alternatively, occurs when the seed or grain is harvested. The straw is the stalk that is leftover.

Because of this fundamental difference, hay and straw have unique assets. As a byproduct of the harvest, straw is often the least nutritional part of the plant. Therefore, it is not typically suited for animal feed.

Hay is cut before seeding occurs. In other words, hay retains most of its nutrients. This makes it a better food source for livestock.

Sometimes, hay and straw can be made from the same plants. For example, sudangrass can be harvested for both hay and straw.

Another simple way to think about the difference is that hay is harvested live. Straw is collected after the plant is already dead.

Is Hay Biodegradable?

It is easy to see that hay can be useful in many settings on and off the farm. Given this widespread usage, the question of biodegradability is essential.

Because hay is made from grass, it is biodegradable. Most organic matter will break down in the environment, and hay is no exception.

Hay’s ability to biodegrade has made it a viable manufacturing alternative. Recently, as plastic straws have fallen out of favor, several companies are producing hay straws.

These eco-friendly straws are made from wheat stems, and they are completely natural. Because hay is biodegradable, the straws can be safely thrown out and pose little environmental risk.

Is Hay Organic?

When you think about hay’s environmental impact, you should also look at whether or not hay is organic. Clearly, hay is a natural product, but that does not guarantee that it is organic.

Instead, you have to look at the farm where the hay was sourced. For higher yields, some farmers treat hay with pesticides and herbicides.

However, hay can be grown organically. Farmers use organic methods for their hay in order to make their animal feed safer. Only organic hay can be used to feed animals that will be certified organic.

Organic hay is preferred for mulch or ground cover. If you use hay that is not organic, then you are transferring those chemicals into your landscaping at home. This can have a real effect on your yard’s overall sustainability.

How Long Does It Take for Hay to Decompose?

We have established that hay is a natural, biodegradable product. Even so, products will decompose at different rates.

If you are hoping to use hay for your yard or animals, then you should understand hay’s decomposition rate.

In general, decomposition rates vary based on environmental factors. However, in most cases, hay starts to break down within a year. This is the case when hay is left in the elements and mostly untended.

Under these conditions, the hay is allowed to get saturated and will not be shifted. This often happens when hay is used as a ground cover or mulch. At this point, the hay is sticky and heavy as decomposition has started to occur.

When this happens, the hay is not nearly as functional. Even so, the decomposition rate of hay makes it viable for other things.

Is Hay Good for Compost?

Because hay decomposes and is fully biodegradable, it is a great choice for composting. In fact, in areas where fields are flooded and hay is spoiled, composting is one of the best options to salvage the loss.

When you compost, you are directing the natural decomposition process. While hay will naturally degrade, when you compost, it transforms from waste into a reusable resource.

Composting hay often makes even more sense in farming. Most excess hay is found on farms, and farms are most likely to be able to reuse the product of composting. Compost can be used to fertilize the soil, which creates a cycle of sustainability.

Therefore, the benefits are two-fold:

  • First, composting hay can greatly reduce waste.
  • Second, composting can enrich the ground for better growth in future yields.

If you are thinking about attempting composting with hay, learn how composting works. Your hay composting will only be successful with the right conditions and maintenance.

Start with moisture. Water is important for decomposition, and leaving your hay compost exposed to rain can facilitate the process. However, the bottom layer must not be fully saturated.

Therefore, be sure that your compost pile can drain. If your hay is too wet, it will turn. Smelly and slimy hay does not make for great compost.

Then, consider the microbial development of your hay compost. Some people invest in different inoculates. These inoculates ensure the necessary microbial growth to safely speed up the process.

You can also work on microbial creation through other methods. Composting is scientific. You just need the right balance of natural chemicals.

Therefore, many farmers add livestock manure. This provides nitrogen and carbon to break the hay down. Various formulas can be used to find the right mix of substances to make sure your hay compost turns out right.

As you compost your hay, you need to spend time turning the pile. You can also test the temperature and chemical makeup of your compost to see if it needs any adjustments.

If all these factors are weighed, full composting of hay can occur annually. This means that you can transform spoiled hay into usable compost in a year.

How Do You Dispose of Hay?

Although hay is biodegradable, it is not recommended to throw hay in the trash. It can be used elsewhere to great effect.

As documented previously, composting is a very viable option for your hay. In this process, hay waste can be neutralized.

If you do not have time for composting, then you can also reuse hay in other, easier ways. Old hay can be used as mulch or ground cover. In this way, hay can be applied in a garden before you throw it in the trash.

Hay has some limitations in gardening. Namely, because hay still has its seed, it can create weeds. However, hay breaks down without getting moldy, which means you can create a layer of nutrients after you apply it.

In essence, hay composts naturally in a garden setting with very little maintenance. To do this, put a thick layer of hay over your soil. Seeds can be planted through this layer, and natural growth will occur.

The best part about this method is that it is a long-term solution. While a lot of hay is needed initially, more hay can be added yearly in smaller amounts. This allows you to easily manage hay waste without creating any added environmental burden.

Conclusion

Hay is more than a part of farm life and an emblem of fall fun. Hay can be an important crop with a multitude of uses and high sustainability.

Because hay can be organically made and ethically disposed of, you can rest easy using hay for any of your farming, gardening or decorating needs.

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