Barges move 1 ton of grain 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Compare that to semi trucks that moves 1 ton of grain only 60 miles on a single gallon, and you'll see why grain barges still hold the keys to grain export.

Sitting in the tow boat wheelhouse, Captain Rider tells us barging grain is definitely the most efficient way of moving Midwestern-grown crops to southern U.S. ports for export. To back up his claims, he shares data complied by the Iowa Department of Transportation:

  • A grain barge holds 12,500 tons or 52,000 bushels of grain. With a 15-barge tow, you’d have 787,500 bushels of grain.
  • A railroad jumbo hopper car holds 100 tons or 3,500 bushels of grain. A 100-car unit train could move 350,000 bushels of grain.
  • An 18-wheeler semi-trailer carries 25 tons or 875 bushels of grain.

So when it comes to moving grain, a 15-barge tow of grain is the equivalent of 2 100-car trains or 900 truckloads.

These 15 barges would be 1/8 mile long, the trains would be 2 ½ miles long and the trucks would stretch over 36 miles if there were a 150-foot distance between each vehicle.

There’s also a huge fuel savings that favors barges. The Iowa data indicates a barge can move 1 ton of grain 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel. A gallon of fuel moves a ton of grain 200 miles by rail and only 60 miles by truck.

So both quicker and more efficient transportation is going to be critical in expanding our export markets as we move down the path of doubling corn and soybean yields.

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to expand to more than 9 billion people. As a result, we’re going to need to dramatically increase food production and find new ways to get our crops to hungry mouths around the world.

A recent report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization indicates the world will need to increase food production by 70% within the next 40 years. Based on the world’s population rising from 6.8 billion to 9.1 billion, worldwide grain production will need to increase by 1 billion tons and meat production by 200 million tons. And this will out place much pressure on the need to expand the U.S. river transportation system.

Back in 1927 before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began turning the river into a reliable navigational channel by constructing locks on the upper Mississippi, less than 1 million tons of exported products moved through the port of New Orleans.

Today, 85 million tons of grain from 19 Midwestern states moves through New Orleans grain elevators to European, South American and Asian markets.

To put it bluntly, the Upper Mississippi River system in its current form, which has served agriculture for more than 60 years, does not meet our future transportation needs. The locks are wearing out and most of the locks need to be extended to 1,200-foot lengths. These updates are critical as more than 50% of all U.S. ag exports are shipped from the Gulf of Mexico — an amount that is expected to double within 20 years.

So you can see why upgrading the locks and channels of the Mississippi and other rivers is essential if we want to double U.S. grain production over the next two decades.

In the next installment of Shipping Out: In 28 Days, We Only Went 10 Miles On The Mississippi River. Shipping Out segments will appear once every two-to-three weeks. Make sure to check back often!


How Soybean Exports Grow In Value

Grain produced on a Minnesota farm and exported to Mainz, Germany

Grain Movement Additional Charge
(Cents Per Bushel)
Value Per Bushel
Minnesota farm n/a $10.00
Minneapolis elevator $0.10 $10.10
Barge freight, Minneapolis to New Orleans $0.65 $10.75
New Orleans elevator $0.05 $10.80
Ocean freight, New Orleans to European water terminal in Rotterdam $0.35 $11.15
Barge cost from Rotterdam to mid-Germany $0.40 $11.55