As we continue a series of articles on U.S. supply chain logistics, rail is arguably the most important mode of transporting wheat for export.

According to a recent USDA Modal Share Analysis Study, rail accounted for an average of 59% of inland transportation for wheat exports between 2016 and 2020, or an average annual total of 17.0 million metric tons. This article will focus on the importance of rail freight in wheat exports and address current trends in rail performance.

Two vertical bar charts showing the volume of U.S. wheat shipped domestically and to export locations by truck, rail and barge between 2004 and 2020.

Rail and barging are the main modes of transportation for wheat exports, as they can handle large volumes of grain over long distances. Together, they transport 89% of the total wheat export shipments. Source: USDA Modal Share Analysis Study.

An Interesting Year

In 2022, increased demand for railcars and performance issues sent U.S. rail rates soaring, with Secondary Railcar Auction Market Bids hitting their highest since 2014. Since then, rail rates have eased drastically. From March 2023 to July 2023 secondary bids for railcars have been negative, indicating that the current supply of railcars is sufficient for meeting the needs of shippers.

Decreased volumes and the subsequent decrease in rail tariff rates and Secondary Railcar Market Auction Bids have added additional pressure to already low basis levels, helping boost the competitiveness of U.S. wheat to importers. However, as the 2023 soy and corn harvest progresses, we can expect rail rates to rise due to increased demand and a higher volume of grain moving via rail.

This vertical bar and line chart show a comparison of grain carloads average from previous years to the current 4 week period up to 8/25/23.

According to the latest Grain Transportation Report, grain carloads (corn, soybeans, and wheat) moved by Class I railroads were down 3% from the previous week and are sitting 22% below the three-year average. The current decreased volume alleviates pressure on basis as rail companies have a sufficient supply of cars to meet the current demand. Source: September 3, 2023 USDA Grain Transportation Report.

Even so, the outlook for fall logistics appears positive. In a recent interview with “Freightwaves,” transportation export Jay O’Neil indicated that “Weather is always a question mark that makes it [performance] impossible to predict. But overall, I think the railroads… have some excess capacity because of [reduced grain export volumes]. I think [railroads] are very much looking forward to the harvest season … So, I don’t see any particular influences right now that should get in their way and prevent them from providing a decent service for harvest.”

Part of a Reliable System

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) is committed to sharing transparent and pertinent information to customers about inland logistics issues. It is beneficial for U.S. wheat importers to be aware of transportation trends, as seasonal shifts and potential issues have a direct influence on export basis and the Free-on-Board export price.

Encompassing the largest share of inland logistics, the railroads are a critical component for moving U.S. wheat to export. After last years’ service disruptions, steps have been taken to help address the root issues such as hiring additional crew and investing in infrastructure. U.S. railroads are committed to moving U.S.-grown commodities. With diverse origination options and numerous modes of transportation, regardless of the class or export point, rail helps U.S. wheat remain the most reliable choice for world importers.

This article is part of a series outlining the inland logistics for U.S. wheat, highlighting barge freight, the railroads, infrastructure investments, and maritime transportation trends.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford


As the geopolitical conflict between Russia and Ukraine comes back into focus following the attacks on port infrastructure in the Ukrainian Black Sea ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk, and the terminals along the Danube River, wheat market volatility remains an ever-present risk.

Despite the recent swings, export basis trends can help provide clues to potential buying opportunities for U.S. wheat classes. In recent months, we have seen Pacific Northwest (PNW) hard red spring wheat (HRS) export basis erode from $1.75 per bushel ($64.30 per metric ton) in November 2022 to $0.80 ($29.40) in July 2023. Considering the recent drifts, this article will investigate the PNW HRS basis trend and provide additional context around the weakening basis.

A line chart showing export basis in dollars per bushel of wheat indicates basis has declined $1.75 per bushel since December 2022.

PNW HRS basis has drifted down since the start of 2023, recently hitting lows not seen since 2007, hovering 90 cents below last year’s level. Below average basis poses a unique opportunity for those interested in purchasing PNW HRS. Source: U.S. Wheat Associates Price Report.

Slow Demand Meets Seasonal Weakness

Otherwise known as the difference between the free on board (FOB) cash price and the futures price, export basis encompasses transportation costs, storage, and supply and demand at the regional level (e.g., farmer sales, local demand), and can fluctuate based on seasonality. In the pre-harvest months, basis generally weakens as the market looks to the influx of new crop stocks. Though a weaker basis is common for this period, unique to this year, the pace of farmer selling has remained slow. Throughout 2023, exporters noted low farmer sales, and USDA’s June Grain Stocks report noted on-farm stocks increased 34% from the year prior. In the last few weeks, farmer sales increased with the increased volume helping drive down basis.

Meanwhile, demand for U.S. wheat has also been relatively light. In 2022/23, commercial U.S. wheat sales were 20.7 MMT, down 4% from the year prior. So far in 2023/24, the U.S. export pace remains slow, tracking 32% behind last year at the same time.

The combined impact of seasonal weakness, the release of farmer-held stocks, and slow export demand have quickly eroded basis. Last week’s basis level of $0.75 ($27.56) signifies the weakest PNW HRS basis since July 2007. For this time of year, the current basis level is 51% below the ten-year average and down 90 cents per bushel from last year. The historically low basis level presents an opportunity for U.S. wheat importers to make purchases of HRS from the PNW or to lock in a low basis contract.

A line chart showing market volatility related to geopolitical tensions in the U.S. wheat futures markets and prices.

Wheat futures continue to fluctuate based on the global supply and demand situation and the erratic influences of geopolitics, weather. The most recent example is the response to the airstrikes in Ukraine last week. CBOT futures closed limit up at $7.57/bu; however, by the end of the week, CBOT futures were down 53 cents at $7.04/bu. Source: U.S. Wheat Associates Price Charting Tool.

With Proper Risk Management Opportunity Awaits

Despite the historically low basis, volatility presents a risk in the market. On July 24, Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) wheat futures were limit up in response to the airstrikes in Ukraine, closing at $7.57/bu; however, by the end of the week, CBOT futures were down 53 cents at $7.04/bu.

Every marketing year presents new challenges and opportunities for buyers of U.S. wheat, and this year is no exception. Markets are volatile, but unique buying opportunities continue to arise. With proper risk mitigation, U.S. wheat importers can capitalize on opportunities for purchasing U.S. wheat and maximize the value of U.S. wheat classes, even in unpredictable times. Contact your local U.S. Wheat Associates office for more individualized information on risk mitigation strategies for your business and opportunities for U.S. wheat.

By U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford.