Over the last few weeks, we have explored all the major modes of the U.S. supply chain, evaluated recent trends, and highlighted how each type of transportation plays an integral role in the U.S. supply chain. Barging, rail, and oceangoing vessels work together to create the dependable supply chain importers of U.S. wheat expect. In periods of increased risk and volatility, a trustworthy, reliable supply chain is essential for providing customers with the wheat they need.

In the final installment of this series, we will explore the continued investment into the U.S. supply chain and highlight recent projects planned to keep the U.S. inland logistics system running efficiently and effectively.

This Just In

On Nov. 6, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) recently announced that more than 40 ports across the United States will receive $653 million in funding for improvement projects that will help with the movement of grain. Under the Port Infrastructure Development Program, the funding will help grow capacity and increase efficiency at coastal seaports, Great Lakes ports and inland river ports.

Stakeholder Commitment

With private companies owning and operating grain export infrastructure and assets, the U.S. supply chain benefits from significant commercial investment to ensure the effectiveness of the logistics system. Holding one of the largest stakes within inland transportation, the U.S. Class I railroads value the system’s reliability and understand its importance to wheat buyers worldwide.

One of the latest examples of continued private investment in the U.S. supply chain is the newly constructed rail bridge at Sandpoint Junction in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail network. On August 7, the inaugural trip on the new Sandpoint Junction Connector rail bridge occurred, representing the official opening of two-way traffic crossing Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. This junction is crucial because it is a merging point between the BNSF and Montana Rail Network and serves as the primary gateway that links grain grown in the Northern Plains to port access in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).

Map of the Pacific Northwest showing the location of an investment in the U.S. supply chain moving wheat to PNW ports.

The new Sandpoint Junction Connector rail bridge will allow two-way traffic across Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho, helping improve efficiency for wheat and other grain moving by rail from the Northern Plains to the PNW for export. Source: BNSF.

CPKC Network

CPKC railroad logoAnother noteworthy project is a $100 million investment commissioned by Kansas City Southern in October 2022 (now part of the Canadian Pacific Kansas City rail network) to construct a new international rail bridge connecting Laredo, Texas, U.S. to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The bridge expansion will allow trains to operate in both directions simultaneously, granting more economical access to the U.S. supply chain for Mexico, the largest importer of U.S. wheat.

Government Investment

Complimenting private investment into the domestic logistics systems, the U.S. federal government provides significant support to the U.S. grain supply chain to uphold its safety and dependability.

In September, the Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration granted $1.4 billion to finance 70 rail improvement projects through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program. The largest grant (nearly $73 million) is for the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC) improvements by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The PCC, a regional shoreline railroad, carries wheat traffic in major wheat-growing counties in eastern Washington, and the upgrades will help improve wheat shipments to elevators and seaports in the PNW by allowing for higher speeds and larger railcars.

Prevention Is the Best Medicine

While capital investment and improvement are vital to maintaining the efficiency of the U.S. rail systems and promoting wheat exports in the face of strong global competition, the U.S. supply chain benefits most from continuous investment in maintenance and repairs by private companies and state and federal governments. The backbone of a dependable, reliable system lies in the safety and proper function of the infrastructure and assets that make up the supply chain.

An important example of the commitment to preventive maintenance is the upcoming lock and dam closure on the Columbia Snake River System. In January 2024, the Army Core of Engineers will be performing maintenance on major components at the John Day and McNary dams on the Columbia River and at the Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams on the Snake River, resulting in an extended river closure from January 14 to March 29, 2024. This maintenance represents a forward-thinking investment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to ensure this critical waterway remains operational for decades to come.

Mississippi River Study

In addition, USACE is conducting a 5-year, Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Management Study that it says will yield recommendations for effective and practical management of the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, MO, to the Gulf of Mexico, a key U.S. supply chain serving growing export demand for U.S. soft red winter wheat.

According to the USACE, the purpose of the study is to identify recommendations for the comprehensive management of the region across multiple purposes, including navigation, flood risk management, and environmental restoration.

The combined impact of preventive maintenance, efficiency improvements, and significant capital investment are key components that differentiate the U.S. wheat supply chain and help the U.S. wheat export supply system remain the most reliable in the world.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 31% of U.S. exported wheat is moved by barge to export points in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Barging is an extremely safe, efficient, and competitive mode of transporting grain for export, contributing to our robust grain marketing system.

As key gateways for wheat exports, this article will explore recent barge freight trends on the Mississippi River (photo above) and Colombia Snake River System (CSRS), highlighting their effectiveness and providing updates about current issues.

Map of the U.S. shows the Mississippi River system, and the Columbia Snake River System to show where barging is important for U.S. wheat export logistics.

The Mississippi and the Columbia-Snake River systems are major transportation routes facilitating exports from the Gulf of Mexico and the PNW. Source: USDA/Agricultural Marketing Service/Transportation and Marketing Program/Transportation Economics Division.

Mississippi River Update

About 8% of all U.S. wheat moves on the Mississippi River system, bringing primarily soft red winter wheat (SRW) from growing regions in the eastern U.S. to export in the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio rivers. The Mississippi River system spans an immense geographic area, originating grain from as far north as Minnesota and as far east as Ohio and Illinois. Barges on the Mississippi River can carry 1,750 MT of grain, and a 15 barge tow can transport over 26,000 MT, the equivalent of 2 unit trains. Exports from the Gulf of Mexico account for 33% of U.S. wheat exports. Though wheat only accounts for 3% of Mississippi River barge movements, it is still an essential and efficient mode of transportation for U.S. wheat.

In the fall of 2022, low water levels on the lower Mississippi River slowed exports at ports on the Louisiana Gulf to their lowest level in 9 years. As a result, barge rates skyrocketed, and grain flows were restricted.

Monthly Downbound Grain Barge Rates

In October 2022, Mississippi River barge rates spiked to a record high of $2,092.83, 150% above the next highest price, due to low water levels and restricted barge flows Source: USDA Monthly Downbound Grain Barge Rates.

Since last fall, Mississippi River barge tariffs have normalized. However, according to the latest Grain Transportation Report, barge movements on the Mississippi River (Lock 27- Granite City, IL) are down 46% from last year and 72% below the three-year average. This decrease is attributed primarily to lower exports for all commodities (wheat, corn, and soybeans). Looking ahead, draft reductions in the lower Mississippi River may be a recurring issue as dryness in the Midwest persists.

this chart of barge movement on the Mississippi River show the downward trend in volumes seasonally and over the past several years.

Barge movements vary by season on the Mississippi River, but are down 46% from last year and 72% from the three-year average, driven primarily by a sharp decrease in grain exports. Weekly inspections for exported grain (wheat, corn, and soybeans) are down 47% from last year and 45% below the three-year average. Source: USDA Grain Transportation Report.

Columbia Snake River System

Shifting our focus to the PNW, the Columbia Snake River System (CSRS) accounts for 60% of all U.S. wheat exports via the deep-water draft ports on the Lower Columbia River. By barge alone, over 10% of all U.S. wheat exports move on the CSRS from as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho (360 miles). From an efficiency standpoint, according to the Pacific Northwest Waterway Association, barges on the CSRS can carry 3,500 MT of grain, and a four barge tow can transport over 14,000 MT, the equivalent of 1.5 unit trains and over 580 trucks.

From January 14 to March 29, 2024, an extended closure of the CSRS is scheduled to replace components at the John Day and McNary dams on the Columbia River and at the Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams on the Snake River. Routine maintenance assures the waterway remains a reliable mode of grain transportation and helps maintain the competitiveness of U.S. wheat. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, grain exports from the PNW are down 71% from last year and 65% below the three-year average, subsequently impacting demand for barges.

Due to low export demand, grain exports from the PNW are down 71% from last year and 65% below the three-year average. Source: USDA FGIS Export Grain Inspections Data.

A Reliable System

U.S. Wheat Associates is committed to sharing transparent and pertinent information to customers about inland logistics issues, as domestic transportation makes up a significant portion of U.S. wheat export basis. Though barges only make up a small portion of U.S. inland logistics, barging helps ensure the U.S. remains the most reliable choice for world importers by complementing the use of Class I railroads and trucks. With diverse origination options and numerous modes of transportation, regardless of the class or export point, U.S. wheat is always available.

This is the first in a series of three articles about the efficient and reliable U.S. grain export transportation system. Future articles will focus on rail and ocean freight logistics.

By USW Market Analyst Tyllor Ledford.