WASHINGTON, DC, US — Tight barge supply has led to low grain barge volumes and rates that are 58% higher than last year, according to the Grain Transportation (GTR) from the US Department of Agriculture.

Year-to-date downbound grain volumes on the Mississippi River reached 23.9 million tons, 4% lower than the five-year average and 10% lower than the same time a year ago.

As of the beginning of September, 1,890 grain barges have been unloaded in New Orleans, 39% less than the five-year average.

USDA said hot temperatures in the US Midwest this summer and low river levels led to draft and tow restrictions. In addition, the barge industry is struggling to hire and maintain workers.

Freight rates have increased since early August, USDA said. As of Sept. 27, the St. Louis barge rate for export grains was a record 1,250% of tariff ($49.88 per ton), 95% higher than the five-year average and 58% higher than the same period a year ago.

Unless barge supply improves, the increased demand for barges from grain shippers during harvest will likely put even more upward pressure on barge rates, USDA said.

The Mississippi River is a key export channel for US corn and soybeans, accounting for more than half of the shipments headed to the global market.