Moving Grain: Columbia River Barge Traffic Halted

    Mississippi River barges lines up at Port of Rosedale, Mississippi ©Debra L Ferguson

    Columbia River Barge Traffic Halted Until the End of the Month

    On September 5, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River due to a crack in a concrete sill at the foot of the gate. Less than 40 miles from Portland, OR, this portion of the river is critical to wheat exporters seeking access to multiple grain elevators located downriver.

    According to the Associated Press, the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association reported that, “Eight million tons of cargo move on the Columbia and Snake rivers each year, and 53 percent of U.S. wheat exports were transported on the Columbia River in 2017…” The Army Corps of Engineers estimates repairs will take until the end of the month and expects traffic to resume by September 30.

    Grain Movements on the Mississippi Remain Slow

    Major navigation issues on the Mississippi River have slowed traffic and reduced demand for shipping. This week’s total downbound tonnage on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Arkansas Rivers was 50 percent lower than the previous week and 72 percent lower than the same week last year. As of Tuesday afternoon, over 100 downbound barge tows and several upbound tows were waiting at Victoria Bend on the lower Mississippi, due to low water.

    Delays and tow size restrictions due to shoaling and lock maintenance are a concern in other locations on the Mississippi as well. Despite some delays on the Ohio River, the volume of grain measured at Olmsted Lock and Dam was up 50 percent.

    Grain movements on the Arkansas River were also down from last week, but shipments on the Arkansas contribute only a small fraction to total grain exports. Decreased barge rates reflect lowered demand from shippers in reaction to these delays. Carriers have reported difficulty finding bids from shippers for services in some locations.

    Weekly Grain Inspections Down but Corn Increases

    For the week ending August 29, total inspections of grain (corn, wheat, and soybeans) for export from all major U.S. export regions reached 1.96 million metric tons (mmt). Inspections were down 15 percent from the previous week, down 12 percent from last year, and 24 percent below the 3-year average.

    Grain News on AgFax

    Although corn inspections jumped 65 percent from the past week, the increase could not offset the 28 percent drop in the amount of wheat inspected nor the 30 percent decrease in soybean inspections. Grain inspections decreased 46 percent, from the previous week, in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) but increased 14 percent in the Mississippi Gulf.

    During the last four weeks, inspections are below last year and the 3-year average by 10 and 16 percent, respectively.

    Snapshots by Sector

    Export Sales

    For the week ending August 29, unshipped balances of wheat, corn, and soybeans totaled 8.5 mmt. This indicates an 18 percent decrease in outstanding sales, compared to the same time last year. Net corn export sales were negative .166 mmt, a low for the current marketing year. Net soybean export sales were .069 mmt, down 27 percent from the past week. Net weekly wheat export sales reached .312 mmt, down 53 percent from the previous week.


    U.S. Class I railroads originated 22,060 grain carloads during the week ending August 31. This is a 4 percent increase from the previous week, 3 percent less than last year, and 1 percent more than the 3-year average.

    Average September shuttle secondary railcar bids/offers (per car) were $342 below tariff for the week ending September 5. This is $54 less than last week and $223 lower than this week last year. There were no non-shuttle bids/offers this week.


    For the week ending September 7, barge grain movements totaled 357,212 tons. This is a 51 percent decrease from the previous week and 72 percent less than the same period last year.

    For the week ending September 7, 221 grain barges moved down river. This is 244 fewer barges than the previous week. There were 679 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans, 6 percent more than the previous week.


    For the week ending September 5, 32 ocean-going grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf. This is 3 percent more than the same period last year. Thirty-three vessels are expected to be loaded within the next 10 days. This is 41 percent fewer than the same period last year.

    As of September 5, the rate for shipping a metric ton (mt) of grain from the U.S. Gulf to Japan was $52.50. This is 1 percent more than the previous week. The rate from the PNW to Japan was $30.00 per mt, 3 percent more than the previous week.


    For the week ending September 9, the U.S. average diesel fuel price decreased 0.5 cents from the previous week to $2.971 per gallon. This price is 28.7 cents less than the same week last year.

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