Continued moderate feed prices and higher milk prices raise the expectation of a U.S. dairy herd expansion this year. However, U.S. dairy farmers started the year with about the same number of cows and replacement heifers as a year ago.

USDA released its semi-annual Cattle report on Jan. 31, including survey-based estimates of U.S. dairy cows, replacement heifers and heifers expected to calve within the next year.

As of Jan. 1, 2014, milk cows were estimated at 9.209 million head, down just 9,300 head from Jan. 1, 2013. It marked the second consecutive year cows numbers declined slightly, and it is the lowest total since 2011.

Dairy replacement heifers (>500 lbs.), at 4.539 million head, were down 11,500 head from a year ago, and the smallest total since 2010.

Based on those estimates, there were 49.3 heifers >500 lbs. per 100 cows, down about 0.1 heifer/100 cows from 2013’s revised estimate.

However, of those total dairy replacement heifers, 2.981 million head are expected to calve in 2014, up 52,300 from 2013. As of Jan. 1, 2014, there were 32.4 replacements expected to calve in 2014 for every 100 cows currently in the U.S. herd. That compares to 31.8 heifers expected to calve per 100 cows in January 2013.

Affecting the total number of replacements available to U.S. farmers, it's likely more than 65,000 female dairy replacements were exported in 2013, the second-highest total ever.

And, about 3.125 million dairy cows were culled (slaughtered under federal inspection) in 2013.