U.S. grain volumes have been a bright spot for the railroads, with higher volumes reflecting export demand.

Indeed, grain carloads were up 23.2% year-to-date to 509,364 as of last Saturday, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

Since September, grain rail carloads have consistently been above the levels of recent years. Due to high prices, plantings of corn and other crops have been above historical norms. (Source: SONAR)
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But looking ahead to the 2021-2022 crop year, which starts Sept. 1 and runs through Aug. 31, U.S. grain exports for products such as wheat, corn and soybeans could be lower than 2020-2021 volumes because of competitive exports from other producing countries, according to preliminary estimates from the May edition of the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, which is produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For wheat, “exports are projected at 900 million bushels, down 65 million from the revised 2020/21 exports,” said the May 12 report. “Several major exporters are projected to have larger supplies in 2021/22 and relatively high U.S. prices are expected to reduce U.S. competitiveness.”

Meanwhile, “unfavorable production prospects” could limit corn exports out of Argentina and Brazil in the first half of 2021, which could benefit U.S. corn exports. However, an anticipated increase in corn exports from Ukraine and Russia could put pressure on U.S. corn exports in the second half of the year, according to the report. 

That said, export projections for U.S. corn in 2021-2022 are higher than actual U.S. corn exports in 2019-2020. The report estimates U.S. corn exports could total 2.45 billion bushels in 2021-2022, down from an estimated 2.78 billion in 2020-2021 but higher than 1.78 billion bushels of corn exports in 2019-2020.

As for U.S. soybean exports, USDA forecasts U.S. export share of the global soybean trade to decline from 36% to 33% in 2021-2022 amid lower U.S. soybean supplies and higher crush levels. The report expects U.S. soybean exports to total around 2.1 billion bushels, down 205 million from 2020-2021.

Record U.S. farm exports projected for fiscal year 20221

USDA’s preliminary forecast for lower export grain volumes for the 2021-2022 crop year comes as the agency also projects U.S. farm exports to total $164 billion for fiscal year 2021, which runs from October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2020. That total, which would be the highest on record, would be a 21% increase from last fiscal year, USDA said Wednesday.

“U.S. agricultural trade has proven extraordinarily resilient in the face of a global pandemic and economic contraction. This strength is reflected in today’s USDA export forecast,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. USDA published its quarterly agricultural export forecast Wednesday. “As we conclude World Trade Month, it’s clear that trade remains a critical engine powering the agricultural economy and the U.S. economy as a whole. Today’s estimate shows that our agricultural trading partners are responding to a return to certainty and reliability from the United States.”

Driving factors for the higher exports include a record outlook for China, record export volumes and values for a number of key products, sharply higher commodity prices, and reduced foreign competition, USDA said. 

USDA projects that total exports of bulk commodities and meat will reach record levels for both volume and value in FY 2021. On the bulk commodity side, this is true for both corn and soybeans exports, with sorghum export value also at a record. On the meat side, beef and pork export values and volumes are projected at an all-time high, as is broiler meat volume,” the agency said.

US rail volumes flat to lower on a weekly and sequential basis

 Grain carloads again last week helped to support U.S. weekly rail volumes, which were flat to lower last week compared to the prior week, according to data from AAR.     

For the week ending Saturday, U.S. rail traffic totaled 528,774 carloads and intermodal units, a nearly 1% drop from the prior week. But on a year-over-year basis, U.S. rail volumes were 23.4% higher than the same period in 2020 because rail volumes dramatically dipped in April and May due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite being higher versus the easy year-ago comps, U.S. rail carloads (excluding intermodal units) were below 2019 levels in the past week. (Source: SONAR)

“For some rail traffic categories, percentage changes for the current week compared with the same week in 2020 are inflated because of the widespread shutdowns — and subsequent large reduction in rail volumes — that impacted many economic sectors last year at this time,” AAR said.

Weekly U.S. carloads totaled 242,227 last week, down 0.2% from the prior week but up 27.2% from a year ago. Of that, grain carloads totaled 24,396 carloads last week, down 0.3% sequentially but up 16% from the same period in 2020.

Weekly U.S. intermodal volumes were 286,547 containers and trailers, which is 1.6% lower than the prior week but 20.4% higher year-over-year.

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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Rail Roundup: Rising rail volumes, short line expansions, Pueblo R&D milestones

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