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Low Mississippi River Levels Stymie Grain and Fertilizer Shipments

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For a second year in a row, Mississippi River water levels are far below normal for this time of year, hampering southbound shipments of grain for export as the US harvest gets underway and slowing fertilizer shipments heading upstream in advance of next season’s planting.

The river’s stage, or the water level relative to a reference point, measured at Memphis dropped this week to as low as -10.2 feet, not as bad as last year’s record low of -10.8 feet but still one of the lowest water levels in 35 years. Barge shipping companies have restricted tow sizes and implemented draft restrictions for deliveries along the Lower and Upper Mississippi River, and along the Illinois River, effectively limiting volumes that can be loaded and transported. 

River shipment activity for US corn and soybeans typically peaks during the September-to-November post-harvest period. This year, amid river shipping restrictions, southbound barge movement for the two crops is far below normal, as seen in this Gro display. So far this year, some 9% of US corn, and 5% of soybeans, has been harvested, slightly ahead of the crops’ average pace.

Soybeans are the most vulnerable to barge movement delays to Gulf of Mexico ports, since the lion’s share of soybean exports occurs from October through January, ahead of the Brazilian harvest. 

The Mississippi River’s back-to-back years of low water levels stem from high temperatures and low rainfall throughout the river basin. Low flows in 2022, as well as in previous low flow years such as 1988 and 2012, contributed to declines in US grain exports, as did decreases in crop production and higher US export prices. 

(Click the play button at bottom of this Gro display to watch a time-lapse video of the Gro Drought Index showing the pervasive dry conditions throughout the Mississippi River basin since early summer.)  

Also vital is moving fertilizer upriver from Louisiana ports, where about 50% of waterborne imports of fertilizers are unloaded. US farmers generally apply fertilizers twice a year: after the fall harvest to replenish soil nutrients, and before and during the spring planting season. But this year, barge volumes — of which fertilizer typically makes up about 25%-35% this time of year — are lower than average. (See chart below.) 

Fertilizer wholesalers and retailers are currently vying for product to meet post-harvest application demand. Suppliers also need to position their inventories for anticipated spring use before the annual closure of the Upper Mississippi River due to winter conditions. Suppliers north of Dubuque, Iowa — more than 1,000 miles north of New Orleans — have until early-to-mid October to place orders before barge shippers refuse new contracts. 

Mississippi River northbound barge traffic this summer (red line) is below average (blue line) as river levels drop. Fertilizer typically makes up about 25%-35% of barge volumes this time of year. This chart shows numbers of loaded barges passing Lock 27 near St. Louis.

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