Straw bedding isn’t really that popular anymore. I think there are areas of the country and disciplines (like horse racing) that still see a lot of straw usage, but in the Rocky Mountains, pine shavings are by far the most popular. The next most popular bedding we see in this region is pine pellets. I prefer pine pellets over shavings because I find them more absorbent than shavings and the horses get fewer hock sores. When you read reviews on straw, you see things about dust, difficulty in cleaning, lack of absorbency, concerns about horses eating it, and lack of availability. Despite all that, I recently made the switch from pine pellets to straw.
I’ve been using wood pellets for the last 9 months. And while I think pellets give a much softer bed to help prevent hock sores and for me they last longer than shavings, they’ve been extremely dusty this summer. I live in a climate that is very high and dry and has a lot of wind. It’s the perfect storm for dusty everything. I was watering my pellets 2-3 times a week and couldn’t keep the dust down. When my horses started coughing, I knew I needed to switch. I’ve used shavings a lot and wanted to try something else, knowing shavings were a less than satisfactory, but acceptable option.
I decided to try straw with an underlay of pellets in the urine spots. My hope was that combination would be ideal – the pellets would be absorbent, and the straw would cut down on the dust and provide a deep, soft bed. The questions going in were all of the negatives you hear about straw, how much it would blow around in our wind, and how hard it would be to clean.
I think it’s really important to get good straw. The waxy, course straw isn’t very absorbent and should be avoided. The straw I get is barley straw and is certified weed free (fun fact, it’s a bi-product of Coors barley production). It’s fairly fine and soft and is surprisingly absorbent. It also has very little dust. All good things. You want to make sure that whatever bedding product you use is mold free. Straw is just like hay – if it gets wet and hot, it will mold. Straw used for bedding should be stored inside or under a tarp to prevent it from getting wet. Treat your straw like your hay, and you’ll be happy. I use two bales of straw for each 12×12′ stall and it gives a nice deep bed. The pellets are under the pee spots and I’m lucky to have horses that pee in the same spot and rarely poop in their stalls, they’re nice enough to go outside for that! That makes my life so much easier.
I’ve noticed my horses are staying a lot cleaner and are the coughing has almost gone away entirely. The pellets gave them a fine coating of dust, almost like dander (a big reason not to use them) and with the straw they aren’t dusty or dirty. I notice that they don’t have pee spots from laying in their stalls. I’ve even noticed that the flies are better in their stalls versus stalls in the barn that are bed with shavings. Has anyone else experienced a fly reduction? I found that fascinating and surprising. Straw is widely known as having good insulating properties and I think it will great in our cold winters. Pellets are soaked with water and last winter they were kind of a nightmare when the temperatures dropped below freezing and they were still holding some water (or not being able to add new bedding because it was too cold to soak pellets). I had pellet clumps in my stalls!
I do notice that they kind of graze on the new bale of straw when I first put it in their stall, which really worried me initially. I’ve watched them carefully and have noticed that the grazing lasts about 10 minutes and then they move on. I do have slow feeding nets in my stalls, so my horses have continual access to hay. I assume that cuts down on their desire to chomp on their straw bedding. The hay tastes a lot better! However, if you have a horse on a limited diet or one that will eat anything not nailed down, straw might not be the best option Horses can colic from eating straw, so you want to be careful. I’ve read that mixing your wet bedding with the new straw will keep them from eating it, but I don’t know that I could stand that. In my mind, the point of cleaning your stall is to get the wet out. Maybe they would get over their desire to eat it after a short time and you could stop with that practice.
The other concern was how difficult the straw was going to be to clean. Straw doesn’t sift through a manure fork like shavings, so cleaning is purported to be a big negative. My horses have stalls with attached runs. They almost always go outside to poop, and unless the weather is truly horrible and I lock them in or if they have the surprising good sense to get in out of the rain, there’s not poop in the straw to clean up. So, on most days I use a manure fork and scrape the clean straw off the top of the pee spot. I will have a wet spot that is a mix of straw and pellets. I have mats in my stalls, so I just use the manure fork to scoop up the wet material. I then move the dry pellets and straw back into that spot (and I’ll move slightly wet material back to get fully saturated) and cover it up with the dry, fluffy straw. About once a week I use some PDZ in the pee spot to take away any ammonia smell (I do that with whatever material I’m using because they pee in the same spot all the time). On the rare occasion I have some poop to clean up, I can generally do it with a manure fork rather than needing to use a pitch fork. I do find that it’s impossible to sift all of the straw away from the manure, but the waste of good straw seems to be minimal. I have watched some YouTube videos and most of them use a metal manure fork. I have a plastic one, but want to try a metal one (not your typical 4 prong pitch fork, but a metal manure fork) with the straw to see how it works for manure.
Two bales of straw cost me about $15 (straw isn’t really cheap at $7.50 a bale at my local feed store) and last me about 2 weeks. I end up using about 4 bales a month, whether I add one at a time or let things get down to the critical stage and add two at a time. That works out to be around $30 a month. While the cost per bale is higher than a single bag of shavings (around $6 at the same feed store), I use a lot less. I’ve found that to get the same level of bedding, I need about 6 bags of shavings and find they don’t last two weeks. I end up having to add a bag a week to keep it at that level because of the amount I take out and what breaks down. That works out to $54 a month. For wood pellets, I start a stall with 8 bags at $5.50 a bag. I have one horse that only needs an additional bag every two weeks and one that needs an additional bag a week. I would say a bag a week is more typical, because my older horse is the cleanest horse you’ve ever met. That makes for a whopping $66 a month ($55 if you only end up using 10 bags a month). I’ve been using about one bag of pellets a month with the straw and just adding them as I need in the pee spots. That makes the grand total of straw with the pellets around $35.50. If your horse is messy and doesn’t pee in the same spot, you’d need more than a single bag of pellets a month so you could do more of the stall with an underlay of pellets. I understand that I like to bed a deep stall, and that’s not everyone’s taste, so your mileage may vary. However, I think the cost savings will be proportionate in whatever quantity you like. Over a month, straw is significantly cheaper than pellets or shavings.
I’d like to try some alternative bedding like hemp or pelleted straw, but those aren’t available in my area and seem to have a premium price tag attached. This mixture is working really for me and I’m going to stick with it until something significantly better comes along. What is your favorite bedding? Have you tried straw? What are your thoughts? Do you love it or hate it?