KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — As grain harvest shifted from the last of the spring wheat crop to the collection of coarse grains, oilseeds and other fall row crops over the past six weeks, movement of grain has slowly improved in the center-Gulf area damaged by Hurricane Ida.

Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, US, south of New Orleans on Aug. 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, in early September. Weekly downbound barged grain movements dropped to their lowest level since May 2013, the US Department of Agriculture ‘ Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) said in its weekly Grain Transportation Report released Oct. 21. Barge-unload operations in the New Orleans region were mostly halted for several weeks. Downbound grain barges and unloads have slowly ramped back up since late September, a timely recovery considering both typically increase as river-adjacent states progress with harvests. Soybeans and other grains typically move through the center-Gulf at New Orleans, whereas hard red winter wheat shipments for export move through the Texas Gulf, which saw minimal damage from the hurricane. 

By the week ended Oct. 16, downbound barged grain movements through the Mississippi River locking system jumped 38% from the previous week and was more than 2.8 times higher than the average weekly tonnage in September. In that week, barges unloaded totaled 772, 1.38 times more than the weekly average in September.

Rail activity

US weekly rail traffic in the week ended Oct. 16 totaled 496,983 carloads and intermodal units, down 4% from the same week in 2020, the Association of American Railroads indicated in its weekly rail traffic update. That total comprised 229,730 carloads, up 1% from 2020, and 267,253 intermodal containers and trailers, down 9% compared to 2020.

In the week, 5 of the 10 carload commodity groups posted an increase over the same week in 2020: chemicals, food and farm products excluding grain, forest products, metallic ores and metals, and nonmetallic minerals. Commodity groups that posted decreases compared with 2020 included coal, motor vehicles and parts, petroleum and related products, miscellaneous carloads, and grain. Carloads in the latter category totaled 25,133, down 2% from the same week a year earlier, bringing the 2021 cumulative total to 941,999 carloads for a weekly average of 22,684, an increase of 7% over the same period in 2020.

Canadian railroads reported 79,042 carloads, down 2% from the same week a year earlier, and 66,873 intermodal units, down 14%. Cumulative Canadian rail volume for the first 41 weeks of 2021 rose to 6,078,439 carloads, containers and trailers, up 4% from the same period last year. Canadian grain carloads in the week totaled 9,600, down 19% versus 2020, bringing the cumulative total for the year to 361, 828 for a weekly average of 8,825, down 1% from the like period last year.

Mexican railroads reported 20,112 carloads in the week ended Oct. 16, down 6% compared with the same week last year, and 15,889 intermodal units, down 3%. Those totals brought cumulative Mexican railroad volume for 2021 to 1,480,925 carloads and intermodal containers and trailers, up 34% from the same point last year. Mexican grain carloads in the week totaled 1,508, down 13% from the same week a year earlier, bringing the 2021 total to 84,703 for a weekly average of 2,066, down 9% from the same period in 2020.

US, Canadian and Mexican rail volume combined in the week totaled 678,899 carloads and intermodal units, down 5% from the same week one year earlier, bringing the 2021 cumulative total for the continent to 28,384,736 carloads and intermodal units, up 7% compared with 2020. North American grain carloads in the week totaled 36,241, down 7% from the same week a year earlier, bringing the 2021 total to 1,388, 530 for a weekly average of 33,867, up 7% from the same period in 2020.

Rail prices

Average October shuttle secondary railcar bids-offers per car were $128 above tariff for the week ended Oct. 14, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) said after examining data from James B. Joiner Co., Tradewest Brokerage Co. That price was $69 higher than in the previous week. There were no non-shuttle bids/offers this week. Rail car prices in the secondary market still were sharply lower by about $700 compared with a month earlier.

Barge activity

The Port of Savannah will be expanded to add 1.6 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEU) in container-handling capacity, the Georgia Ports Authority recently announced. The expansion includes another 230 acres of container-handling space, the AMS said. A phased opening for the expanded areas is planned possibly starting in December. The full buildout is expected in 2023. 

Animal feed, especially dried distillers’ grains with solubles, comprised 17% of the Port of Savannah’s agricultural exports in 2020. In that year, the Port of Savannah ranked sixth in the nation for containerized waterborne agricultural exports.

In the week ended Oct. 16, barged grain movements totaled 813,670 tons, a 38% increase from the previous week, and 8% higher than the same week in 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers indicated.  

In the same week, 510 grain barges moved down river, an increase of 150 barges from the previous week. There were 772 grain barges unloaded in the New Orleans region, up 3% from the prior week, the Corps and AMS said.

Ocean freight activity

In the week ended Oct. 14, 42 oceangoing grain vessels were loaded in the Gulf, a 27% increase from the same period last year. 

In the 10 days starting Oct. 15, 51 vessels were expected to be loaded, down 22% compared with the same period last year.  

As of Oct. 14, the rate for shipping one tonne of grain from the US Gulf to Japan was $84.75, up 1% from the previous week. The rate from the US Pacific Northwest to Japan was $47 per tonne, also up 1% from the prior week.

Trucking activity

Finding available trucking capacity was a challenge for most grain market participants. Millfeed traders said only a small volume of feed could shift between areas of origin due to a severe shortage of qualified, insurable truck drivers and the high cost of freight due to that shortage and the high cost of fuel, prices for which have been on an upward tear for most of 2021. A flour merchandiser for a major miller said short labor and short freight were top of mind for every customer in his portfolio and would be a driving factor in the food industry for the foreseeable future. A Mid-South flour manufacturer said customers were ordering flour up to a month early to give themselves a cushion in case of delayed shipments. 

 Fuel prices

For the week ended Oct. 18, the US average diesel fuel price increased by 8.5¢ from the previous week to $3.671 per gallon, 

$1.28 above the same week last year. At $4.53 per gallon, California diesel prices are the highest since August 2008.