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Export grain shippers mull options amid limited barge, rail capacity

‘Lack of water is the culprit and abundance of water will be the elixir’

Rail is one option for grain shippers affected by low water levels. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Grain shippers have been scrambling to consider all their export options in the wake of low water levels on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. 

“Because of the low water conditions on the river, which is a major conduit for soybean and grain exports, there are a lot of farmers and a lot of agricultural shippers who are asking themselves, ‘What is my plan B? What is my plan C?’” Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told FreightWaves. “And that answer is going to be different depending on your region of the country and what that market looks like.” 

The low water levels have reduced the capacity to ship grain exports via barge, sending those rates to their highest levels in years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, barge rates for agricultural transport along key points of the U.S. waterway system have fallen for the week of Nov. 8 after experiencing pricing spikes in October.

“The barge rates right now are the highest they’ve ever been,” said Max Fisher, chief economist for the National Grain and Feed Association. 

When faced with low water levels, grain and soybean shippers are presented with several options. Two of those options include storing their soybeans or grain for longer than they normally would or trucking a portion of them to local livestock markets, according to Steenhoek.

Freight rail is also an option, particularly if the agricultural products need to be exported, Steenhoek said. 


A comparison of U.S. grain carloads using data from the Association of American Railroads. Blue represents grain carloads in 2022. (Source: FreightWaves SONAR) To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.

Indeed, the Association of American Railroads recently noted that grain volumes have increased in October as grain producers seek alternatives to the Pacific Northwest and Gulf Coast. Mexico is also one of the U.S.’s key export markets, according to Steenhoek. 

But relying on rail offers its own issues. While rail service has improved over the course of this year, “it’s still not the effective lifeline that we really need it to be right now,” Steenhoek said. 

Fisher agreed with that assessment of the ongoing challenges.

“What we’re hearing is that grain shippers are not in the clear just yet,” Fisher said. “They’re still experiencing challenges on rail, but they are not as dire as they were earlier in 2022.”

The average train speed for grain trains among all the U.S. Class I operations grew in September and October relative to earlier this year. (Source: FreightWaves SONAR)

Furthermore, a potential rail strike due to an inability to ratify labor contracts between the railroads and two to four unions could prove disastrous for grain shippers.

“[A strike] really does come at an unwelcome time because, within certain industries like agriculture, the decisions you’re making today relate in many cases to where you’re going to ship soybeans and grain next month, two months from now,” Steenhoek said. “It’s not like a cupcake shop where you’re asking, ‘How many chocolate cupcakes should I make tomorrow? How many do I think I’ll sell?’ For certain industries, you’ve got to have more of a greater predictability. You operate on more of a long-term demand-and-supply forecast. And so therefore you need to make sure you’ve got a predictable supply chain.”

Recent rainfall in the Midwest has helped increase water levels in the last several weeks, although the land is soaking up the precipitation and there is not enough runoff to fill streams and rivers to where water levels are needed to be. As winter approaches, any kind of moisture in the ground becomes frozen, so it doesn’t move to the waterways. 

If snow melts quickly enough and the ground is frozen, that runoff water could go to the streams and rivers. But if a region sees sustained cold temperatures, the snow just piles up and it won’t be until early spring to see what impact snow might have on the inland waterways. 

“Lack of water is the culprit and abundance of water will be the elixir,” Steenhoek said. “… It is going to require a pretty elongated and sustained amount of rainfall and precipitation [to raise water levels to be suitable enough for navigation].” 

Harvest yields for the U.S. are expected to be under historical levels because of hot and dry conditions experienced during the growing season. In a monthly report published Nov. 9, the Department of Agriculture anticipates U.S. exports for corn, soybeans and wheat will be lower in the 2022-23 crop year when compared with previous years. The U.S. crop year runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31.

Yet even though exports are expected to be down this year because last year’s harvest levels were much higher, the low levels of the inland waterways have not helped shippers, according to Fisher.

“There’s also probably more grain going out to the Pacific Northwest by rail than otherwise would be the case because grain companies have to get grain to the foreign markets no matter what,” Fisher said. “In some cases, the market sometimes just demands it, so they’re willing to go ahead and pay a little more freight costs to go ahead and get it there [but] still not offsetting what’s being lost on the river.” 

Both large and small companies have been impacted by low levels in the U.S. waterway system, which not only includes the Mississippi River but the Missouri, Illinois and Ohio rivers as well.

“It’s going to have a negative [volume] impact in ag services [in] North America,” Juan Luciano, CEO of grain producer ADM (NYSE: ADM), said during the company’s third-quarter 2022 earnings call on Oct. 25. ADM produces grain in both North America and South America.

A portion of North American soybean export volumes will likely be lost this season, while the window for the corn exports will probably be extended into the first quarter, Luciano said. 

ADM’s South American operations may also be able to export more grains, which should help offset any declines in North America. But Luciano said North American products could see a “pop” in their margins since the scarcity makes the products and destination more naturally valuable.

For their part, North American railroads say they are working with customers to ship more grain.

“[Kansas City Southern customers] continue to have the same great options they have always had, including direct access to the Gulf of Mexico at multiple locations,” KCS said in a statement to FreightWaves. “Historically, barge freight was the most cost effective option. However, this year, due to drought conditions, shippers have needed alternatives. As a result, KCS has converted some business to rail.

“While minimal volumes have been converted, we continue to have conversations with customers. In all cases, KCS is looking for win-win opportunities and solutions for new and existing customers, which in some cases means nontraditional KCS destinations.”

In its Q3 2022 earnings call, Canadian railway CN (NYSE: CNI) said it expects to handle some grain volumes that would have otherwise used barge transport in the inland waterway system. 

“It’s a great opportunity and we do parallel the [Mississippi] River,” CN Chief Marketing Officer Doug MacDonald said. 

CN is working with customers, although the railway also has to be mindful of terminal capacity, according to MacDonald. The railway operates both to western Canadian ports and to New Orleans via a north-south line that originates in Canada and cuts through the U.S. Midwest. 

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) is also shipping additional grain, but, like CN, the railroad has to be mindful about not overselling capacity, according to comments this week. 

“We are in a position to be able to help our customers because of our franchise,” UP President and CEO Lance Fritz said Tuesday at the Stephens Annual Investment Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. “They came to us because we have a wonderful shot from the Great Lakes, from the growing regions down to the Gulf. [But] we have to be careful because with our constrained crew base, there’s limited capacity. And if we wholesale shift to grain, somebody else — who we’ve committed to — is having a bad time. So there’s a lot of moving parts there.”

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) President and CEO Alan Shaw confirmed at the same investor conference that NS has been handling additional grain and that the company has been able to participate in grain export opportunities that weren’t previously available. 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.
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