Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Difference Between Hay and Straw

Almost forty years ago, I remember a discussion with my college Latin professor in which he complained about the urbanization of our vocabulary. He was trying to teach college students to read and translate Latin, but continually ran into the problem that much of the time his students didn’t know the difference between one kind of tree or plant and another. How are you going to understand the Latin word for “elm” or “maple”, if you don’t know the difference between those kinds of trees in English?

(The picture on top is an elm; the second picture is a maple.)

The Romans lived much closer to the land than we do, and if you didn’t understand the significance of different plants in their literature—didn’t even know the plants were different—then you lose a good part of the significance of Latin poetry.

I can’t say that I was very impressed with my professor’s complaint when I was twenty. After all, the world can probably do reasonably well with a somewhat diminished understanding of Horace, but last week a sense of how much we have lost came through to me (warning: my father taught vocational agriculture when I was growing up).

I was talking to a structural engineer, and realized he didn’t understand the difference between hay and straw, even though he owned a ranch himself.

This is probably well known to you, but according to Wikipedia:

Hay is a generic term for grass or legumes that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as animal feed, particularly for grazing animals like cattle, horses, goats, and sheep.

Straw is an agricultural by-product, the dry stalk of a cereal plant, after the grain or seed has been removed.

Hay is used to feed livestock; straw doesn’t have enough nutritional content to be very useful for feed—it’s used for animal bedding and a variety of other uses, like hats, thatching and baskets, many of which aren’t much in demand any more.

As a result, hay is relatively expensive (maybe $7.00 per bale) and straw is pretty cheap ($2.50 per bale), according to the prices I found today. Now you may fell that you can live your life happily without ever knowing the difference between hay and straw, but one of the designs we are reviewing for Re:Vision Dallas calls for building a straw bale wall, so if you don’t know the difference between hay and straw, then you won’t understand that while a hay bale wall may be prohibitively expensive, the same isn’t necessary true for a straw bale wall.

By the way, if you’re interested in building your own straw bale house, or just learning more about the process, then you should pick up a copy of Building a Straw Bale House: The Red Feather Construction Handbook. It was written by Nicholas Corum, one of the members of the jury for the Re:Vision Dallas competition.

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