Snow blows over a rural road.

(Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Recent Severe Winter Weather Causing Supply Chain Challenges for Agriculture

February 26, 2021

By Mike Steenhoek, STC Executive Director

Shipments of soybeans and grain have experienced delays due to the recent extreme winter weather.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the week ending February 13, total downbound grain movements experienced a 14% decline from the previous week and a 34% decline from the prior two weeks.  Inspections at export facilities dropped 13% for wheat, 17% for corn, and 57% for soybeans – the lowest level for soybean inspections since August 2020.  Weather induced transportation delays were significant contributors to these declines. 

The need to clear snow and ice from rail tracks is an obvious disruption.  Less obvious to many is the impact of extreme cold temperatures on the efficacy of a train’s air braking system.  When the air brakes do not perform as normal, the frequent response by a railroad is to limit the number of freight cars per unit.  The overall length of the train will be shortened.  This clearly decreases the volume capacity of a single train.  More locomotives will be required to transport a given volume. 

We have also witnessed ice conditions along certain segments of the inland waterway system, which limits the width of barge flotillas.  Ice naturally extends from the shoreline to the middle of the river channel.  As that occurs, the navigation channel becomes more narrow and restricted – necessitating width limits on barge flotillas.  One barge can accommodate 52,500 – 57,000 bushels of soybeans.  One 15 barge tow can accommodate 787,500 – 855,000 bushels of soybeans.  Each barge removed from a overall tow due to ice-related width restrictions has an impact on the overall efficiency of barge transportation. 

Of course, the extreme cold temperatures resulted in limits on the amount of time truck drivers, train operators, and barge crew members could safely be outside.  This added an additional inefficiency to the overall supply chain. 

Winter in the Midwest and Plains states will routinely result in transportation inefficiencies.  However, the recent extreme winter conditions clearly imposed a greater impact than normal. 

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