PROS: widely available, aesthetically pleasing CONS: can be prone to mold if harvested or stored improperly; horses may try to eat it; not very absorbent
Straw is the plant stalk left behind after cereal grains are harvested. The hollow stalks are cut, dried and baled. To produce hay, on the other hand, an entire grass or legume plant, including leaves and seed heads, is cut, dried and baled. The type of straw depends on the plant the stalk was supporting---usually wheat, oats or barley.
In addition to looking attractive, straw can make a very soft bedding, particularly if it’s chopped a second time after harvest. This softness can encourage horses to lie down and get more rest. Straw is also the bedding of choice for foaling, as opposed to wood shavings.
“If you are foaling on shavings or sawdust, the new wet baby gets completely covered with this material and the mare has a harder time licking the foal,” Nielsen explains. “This is not an issue with straw.”
Straw is, generally speaking, less dusty than wood products, but only if it’s harvested and stored correctly. A bale of straw needs to be checked as closely as a bale of hay for signs of moisture and mold. Straw can also be dusty if the grain was harvested with a combine that chopped the stalks into short lengths that are prone to shattering. One worry is the fact that, while straw is less palatable than hay, many horses will still eat it. Eating straw can lead to problems such as impaction colic or mouth irritation from barbed seed heads that were left on the plant.
“Where I grew up, we used straw,” says Coleman. “It’s tried and true, and most people know how to deal with it. We were fortunate because we could get wheat straw, which is fairly absorbent and horses rarely eat it. We didn’t want to use barley straw because some of the heads at that time had sharp awns that could puncture or get stuck in the mouth. You might be able to find embedded seeds near the incisors, but abscesses back by the cheek teeth would be difficult to find, and require major dental care to clean up.”
Nielsen adds that the absorption capacity of straw isn’t great. “If you’ve cleaned stalls that were bedded with straw, you’ll often notice that urine goes down through and pools underneath it,” he says.
In areas where cereal straw is available, another concern is what kind of bales you can get. Many farmers are no longer making small bales; it’s more cost-effective to put up big square bales---and these are hard to handle in a barn. “If you are getting big bales of straw, do you have a way to handle them when they come off the truck? Some barns are using big bales and they’ve had to rethink their day-to-day management. It takes a big tractor to move them, so you need a plan,” Coleman says.
Straw is the plant stalk left behind after cereal grains are harvested. The hollow stalks are cut, dried and baled.
respiratory problems. And certain woods can also be downright harmful to horses. “You have to be careful with some wood products because horses may react negatively to them,” says Coleman. “Some of the cedars have a lot of oil and these can cause allergic reactions or be too drying--pulling moisture from hoof horn when horses are standing in these shavings,” he says. “You need to try some of these in small amounts first to see if they will work or not for a certain horse.”
One wood that is dangerous for every horse is black walnut, which can trigger laminitis in a horse who stands on it for even a short period of time. “You need to be aware of the source [of wood products] and be careful that there’s no black walnut in the material. Some people want to know how much black walnut would be safe, and the answer is zero,” says Coleman.
While sawdust and shavings are the most popular wood bedding products, pellets are also an option says Jenifer Nadeau, PhD, an equine extension specialist at the University of Connecticut, who states that for a while in her area, some horse owners were using wood pellets and liked them because they are very absorbent, “but now they are much more expensive---since they have become popular for heating homes in pellet stoves.”
Coleman agrees that pelleted wood products, when available, can make good bedding. “Horse owners like pellets because you can get away with less material. After they get moist and start to expand, you end up with more volume. A shovelful of pellets might turn into two and a half shovelfuls of expanded pellets. Some people put down a few pellets and sprinkle them with a little water so they’ll expand. They don’t get the pellets very wet, so they will still absorb moisture from urine and manure in the stall.”
There may be differences in various pellets, in terms of hardwood or softwoods. “Some of the pellets used in heating stoves may be hardwood whereas most of the bedding pellets tend to be a softwood, but for bedding you can use either,” Coleman explains. “It is important, however, to know the source, and the kind of wood, to make sure you never end up with any black walnut wood.”
How much wood product beddings cost depends on many factors, including wider economic activity in your area. “When there is a lot of construction/building going on, there are more wood products available and prices are lower because they are produced in higher quantities. When construction is down they become higher priced and harder to find,” says Nadeau.