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USDA: Grain barge delays from Mississippi flooding

Locks and dams in the Upper Mississippi River are expected to stay closed for the next three weeks.

2 Lisa Selfie December 2020 Headshot

All barge traffic will be halted across a wide swath of the Upper Mississippi River for weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week. Record winter snowfall in the upper Midwest is now melting and flooding into waterways.

Reuters reports the closures will force grain and fertilizer shippers to find alternative, potentially more costly, transportation by truck or rail, freight experts said.

No boats on the Upper Mississippi River

In its latest Grain Transportation Report, the USDA noted American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) reported it had no boats on the Upper Mississippi River above St. Louis, Missouri, because of flooding conditions and lock closures.

Currently, above Lock 17, which is near New Boston, Illinois, all locks and dams are closed, and no freight is being accepted along the Twin Cities and Mid-Mississippi portions of the river. The locks and dams are expected to stay closed for the next three weeks.

Also, around May 5, as far south as Lock 22, located near Saverton, Missouri, locks and dams could potentially be forced to close and stay closed for approximately two weeks, because of possible high water.

ACBL anticipates departures from St. Louis to the full Upper Miss to not take place until mid-May. The forecasted reopening could be delayed by additional precipitation.

The closures and slower-than-normal export grain sales have resulted in below-normal barge freight rates. In turn, low barge rates may lead some companies to reduce the number of barges they have in service.

Drought-impacted Mississippi halted barge traffic last fall

In October, dry fall weather impacted the Mississippi River during harvest season. The river reached historically low levels severely disrupting grain movement along the waterway.

"Serious concerns” over critically low water levels in the Mississippi River system led port authorities to limit vessel drafts near a key export hub, adding a further headache for shippers already contending with delays and increasing costs. Two Cargill grain terminals on the river stopped taking corn and soybeans.

For the week of October 25, the St. Louis barge spot rate increased almost 22% from last week to $88.46/ton, which was lower than the all-time peak of $105.85/ton for the week of October 11.

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