ANKENY, Iowa — As Iowa’s harvest season cranks into high gear, there is concern over shipping the grain via river. The problem is low water on the southern half of the Mississippi River, along with not enough grain barges available.

In a weekly USDA Grain Transportation report, news of less barges unloading in Louisiana was released. The report said there were 489 grain barges unloaded in the New Orleans regions, which was 16% fewer than last week. The report added that 136 grain barges moved down the river, an increase of 6 barges over the prior week.

“The tight barge supply is problematic for grain shippers heading into harvest. Unless barge supply improves, the increased demand for barges from grain shippers during harvest will likely put even more upward pressure on barge rates,” stated the USDA Grain Transportation Report for Sept. 29 of 2022.

An even bigger issue is the low water, which means less bushels of grain can be transported on the waterway. It is common to hook a number of grain barges together to carry more grain. The industry has now reduced the amount of barges being pushed due to low water, making it harder to navigate.

“Less water means the shipping channel becomes narrower, they now have limited to a maximum of 25 barges,” said Mike Steenhoek, of the Soy Transportation Coalition. “From 40 to 35, to 25, that’s a significant reduction in the efficiency of barge transportation, so when you got low water conditions you can’t load as much freight.”

With less water, that means less soybeans can go in each barge.

“So a typical barge that you’ll see can easily be loaded with 50,000 bushels of soybeans” said Steenhoek. “If you have to load that barge lighter, one foot lighter that’s the equivalent of 5,000 bushels of soybeans per barge, that’s 10% less.”

With the barge shipping issues, that may mean some farmers will have to switch marketing strategies.

“Some will store more of it longer than they may want to, I’m hearing reports of farmers having to change their plans and are delivering to a facility that may be rail service, or to look for other alternatives for transportation, but all of these things come at a cost.”