What's an RCAU, and what does it have to do with forage supplies?

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The monthly USDA Feed Outlook report not only provides estimates of available feed supplies, but frequently estimates U.S. roughage-consuming animal units (RCAU). It might be more than you needed to know, but USDA calculates RCAUs for all livestock that might consume roughages, assigning different factors for each species. For example, a dairy cow has the top RCAU of 1.0354, while a dairy heifer has a factor of 0.8150. Factors are also assigned for beef cattle, sheep and goats, horses, poultry and hogs.

In December, total U.S. RCAUs were estimated at 67.08 million in 2013/14, down slightly from 67.22 in 2012/13. So, 9.2 million dairy cows and 4.5 million replacement heifers (based on January 2014 estimates) mean dairy cattle account for about 20% of all RCAUs in the United States (9.53 million RCAUs for dairy cows plus 3.67 million RCAUs for dairy heifers equals 13.20 million dairy RCAUs.

Increased hay supplies, in combination with reduced RCAUs, will increase available hay stocks per unit, from 1.14 tons per unit in 2012/13 to 1.33 tons per unit in 2013/14. That's nationally, and local conditions will prevail, of course. For example, California's drought clouds near-term forage production heading into 2014.

In addition to hay, many dairy producers will have access to greater supplies of other forages in 2014. U.S. corn silage production was estimated at 117.9 million tons in 2013, up 4% from 2012, the fourth-highest level of production on record, and the highest since 1981. Sorghum silage production experienced impressive year-to-year gains, up 31% from 2012, to 5.4 million tons in 2013. Corn and sorghum silage available per RCAU is estimated at 1.84 tons per unit, up from 1.75 tons per unit in 2012. 

At least on a national average, hay prices have been coming down. The USDA National Ag Statistics Service January Agricultural Prices report indicated alfalfa hay prices had declined for nine consecutive months. January preliminary alfalfa hay prices averaged $185, down $2 from December, and $32/ton less than January 2013. Compared to a month earlier, however, January alfalfa hay prices were higher in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oregon and Utah.

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