Moving Grain: Barge Shipments Remain Low; Upbound Fertilizer Movements Increase

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Grain Barge Shipments Remain Low, While Upbound Fertilizer Movements Increase

Barge shipments of grain transiting Mississippi River Locks and Dam 27 (above St. Louis, MO), Arkansas River Lock and Dam 1 (near Tichnor, AR), and Ohio Olmsted Locks and Dam (near Olmsted, OH) remained low for the week ending May18. Total grain barge movements for the week were 369,250 tons, about the same as the week before and 54 percent less than the 3-year average.

Year-to-date (YTD) grain movement by barge for calendar year 2019 is 9.2 million tons, 26 percent less than the same time last year (GTR Table 10). Due to lock closures because of flooding earlier in the year, YTD shipments of up-bound fertilizer by barge are 11 percent lower than the 3-year average, at 4.4 million tons.

However, for the week ending May 18, barges shipped 370,500 tons of fertilizer, 42 percent more than the 3-year average for the same period. This surge reflects strong demand for fertilizer, as planting—currently well behind schedule—continues. The barge industry expects more delays in the coming weeks, as lock closures and high water conditions continue to challenge barge operations.

TRB Pre-Publication Study on Freight Transportation Resilience

Last week, the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) National Cooperative Freight Research Program released a pre-publication (not yet finalized) version of Research Report 39, Freight Transportation Resilience in Response to Supply Chain Disruptions. The purpose of the project “was to develop guidance for stakeholders to plan for, mitigate, and adapt to disruptions to supply chains with the aim of enhancing freight transportation system resilience.”

Grain News on AgFax

Among its contributions, the report identifies factors affecting resiliency, analyzes potential mitigation measures, and examines the dynamics of supply chain responses to system disruptions. Appendices A and C describe and model a flood event or lock closure on the Mississippi River. The model is designed to simulate the disruption of grain shipments by barge between Chicago and New Orleans.

Grain Inspections Down from Past Week

For the week ending May 16, total inspections of grain (corn, wheat, and soybeans) for export from all major U.S. export regions reached 2.13 million metric tons (mmt). This amount signifies a 13 percent decrease from the previous week, a 24 percent drop from last year, and a 5 percent decrease from the 3-year average. Inspections decreased for each of the three major grains, falling 18 percent for corn, 14 percent for wheat, and 3 percent for soybeans.

Pacific Northwest (PNW) grain inspections dropped 44 percent from the previous week and were the lowest since early January. Mississippi Gulf inspections, however, decreased only 4 percent from the previous week.

Snapshots by Sector

Export Sales

For the week ending May 9, unshipped balances of wheat, corn, and soybeans totaled 25.3 mmt. This indicates a 20 percent decrease in outstanding sales, compared to the same time last year. Net weekly wheat export sales were .114 mmt, up 25 percent from the previous week. Net corn export sales totaled .553 mmt, up 92 percent from the previous week. At .249 mmt, net soybean export sales rebounded from negative sales during the previous week.


U.S. Class I railroads originated 24,176 grain carloads for the week ending May 11. This is 8 percent higher than the previous week, unchanged from last year, and 10 percent above the 3-year average.

Average June shuttle secondary railcar bids/offers (per car) were $158 above tariff for the week ending May 16. This is $71 below last week and $424 lower than last year. Average non-shuttle secondary railcar bids/offers were $225 above tariff, $50 below last week and $113 lower than last year.


For the week ending May 18, barge grain movements totaled 369,250 tons. This is 0.1 percent less than the previous week and 60 percent lower than the same period last year.

For the week ending May 18, 210 grain barges moved down river. This is 10 more barges than the previous week. There were 513 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans, unchanged from the previous week.


For the week ending May 16, 29 ocean-going grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf. This is 9 percent less than the same period last year. Fifty-three vessels are expected to be loaded within the next 10 days. This is 23 percent more than the same period last year.

As of May 16, the rate for shipping a metric ton (mt) of grain from the U.S. Gulf to Japan was $43.00. This is 1 percent more than the previous week. The rate from the Pacific Northwest to Japan was $23.50 per mt, a 2 percent increase from the previous week.


For the week ending May 20, the U.S. average diesel fuel price increased 0.3 cents, from the previous week, to $3.163 per gallon. This price is 11.4 cents below the same week last year.

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