Moving Grain: Mississippi River Barge Operations Continue To Improve

    Barge and ship traffic transport export cargo on the Mississippi River in the Port of New Orleans. Photo: Bob Nichols, USDA

    Mississippi River Grain Barge Operations Continue To Improve

    High water conditions on the Ohio River improved in the second part of the week ending March 13, and barge operations continued to normalize. Water levels are expected to drop more for the rest of this week.

    Three hundred fifty-eight empty upbound barges passed through the Olmsted Locks and Dam, 58 percent more than the previous week. Apart from minor-to-moderate high water conditions in the St. Louis area and some Lower Mississippi River locations, grain barge logistics for most of the Mississippi River have continuously improved since the beginning of March.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to re-open Mississippi River Lock 25 (near Winfield, MO) early next week. The reopening will allow the industry to prepare for the 2021 navigation season on the Upper Mississippi River.

    The season typically starts in late March or early April when the first vessel passes through Lock and Dam 2 (near Hastings, MN)

    ATRI Releases Annual Report on Truck Bottlenecks

    The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) released its annual Top 100 Truck Bottlenecks Report. Using global positioning service (GPS) data from more than 1 million freight trucks, the analysis measured levels of truck-involved congestion at over 300 locations on the national highway system. Twenty-nine States were found to have at least one bottleneck.

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    For the third consecutive year, New Jersey was found to have the worst bottleneck. In 2020, the average peak-hour truck speed at bottlenecks was 43 miles per hour. This was 34 percent higher than in 2019 because of reduced traffic resulting from COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

    Reduced traffic both sped up many construction projects and limited slowdowns in construction zones. In March 2020, average truck speeds at some of the worst locations improved by 100 percent or more from a year earlier. In February 2020, truck activity increased because of panic buying, then immediately decreased in March because of business shutdowns.

    Normal levels of activity resumed in April and May.

    Wheat and Corn Boost Total Grain Inspections

    For the week ending March 11, total inspections of grain (corn, wheat, and soybeans) for export from all major U.S. export regions totaled 3.4 million metric tons (mmt). Total grain inspections were up 23 percent from the previous week, up 75 percent from last year, and up 51 percent from the 3-year average.

    The rise in total grain inspections from the previous week reflected a 41-percent rebound in wheat inspections and record-high corn inspections—up 32 percent. Inspections of soybeans, however, dropped 13 percent from the previous week.

    In the Pacific Northwest, total grain inspections rose 20 percent from the previous week and, in the Mississippi Gulf, increased 29 percent. Year-to-date numbers and the 4-week averages remained strong for grain inspections.

    Snapshots by Sector

    Export Sales

    For the week ending March 4, unshipped balances of wheat, corn, and soybeans totaled 44.9 mmt. This was 4 percent lower than last week, but still represented a significant increase in outstanding sales from the same time last year.

    Net corn export sales were 0.396 mmt, up significantly from the past week. Net soybean export sales were 0.351 mmt, up 32 percent from the previous week. Net wheat export sales were 0.330 mmt, up 50 percent from the previous week.


    U.S. Class I railroads originated 26,451 grain carloads during the week ending March 6. This was a 12-percent increase from the previous week, 27 percent more than last year, and 26 percent more than the 3-year average.

    Average March shuttle secondary railcar bids/offers (per car) were $328 above tariff for the week ending March 11. This was $41 less than last week and $459 more than this week last year. There were no non-shuttle bids/offers this week.


    For the week ending March 13, barge grain movements totaled 810,186 tons. This was 5 percent lower than the previous week and 52 percent higher than the same period last year.

    For the week ending March 13, 512 grain barges moved down river—13 barges fewer than the previous week. There were 851 grain barges unloaded in New Orleans, 1 percent fewer than the previous week.


    For the week ending March 11, 45 oceangoing grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf—15 percent more than the same period last year. Within the next 10 days (starting March 12, 2021), 55 vessels were expected to be loaded—31 percent more than the same period last year.

    As of March 11, the rate for shipping a metric ton of grain from the U.S. Gulf to Japan was $57.75. This was unchanged from the previous week. The rate from PNW to Japan was $32.50 per metric ton, 1 percent more than the previous week.


    For the week ending March 15, the U.S. average diesel fuel price increased 4.8 cents from the previous week to $3.191 per gallon, 45.8 cents above the same week last year.

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