US corn export commitments have made a slow start to the season “as feed inflation is exacerbated by a strong US dollar”, Rabobank said this week.

(This as the bank unveiled a “bearish call” on the grain’s 2023 price outlook.)

But, of course, that’s not the whole story.

The lag in export commitments (ie completed shipments and unfulfilled orders combined) of more than one-third compared with the trailing five-year average reflects simple logistics too, and the lingering pain to farmers caused by US drought.

Thinner than a mile

After curtailing harvest prospects, the dryness has depleted water levels on the Mississippi River, a vital artery for transporting crop from the Corn Belt to Gulf ports, to the lowest since records began in 1927.

With barges running lighter, if at all, rates have tripled year on year, such that it costs more than $100 a tonne to get crop from Iowa or Ohio to the sea.

Hence US Gulf corn export prices averaged $8.55 per bushel last month, setting an October record, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

With limited supplies in port, and what is there expensive it is not surprise that corn exports so far in 2022-23 have yet to reach 5.0m tonnes, according to USDA data on Thursday, compared with a five-year average of 7.7m tonnes by now.

Corn vs soy

Corn’s situation is made even worse by the fact that it isn’t soy.

The oilseed is taking precedence over what capacity there is.

In fact, with soybean exports running at 14.6m tonnes so far, less than 4% behind the average pace, investors might be tempted to doubt the whole Mississippi barge story altogether.

But it’s easy to see why merchants are in such a frenzy to speed soybeans, with shipments facing a race against time.

Growers in rival Brazil will next month begin harvesting their soybean crop, which is going to be a huge one, forecast above 150m tonnes.

Brazil’s safrinha corn harvest, which provides the bulk of the country’s exports of the grain,  doesn’t get going in earnest until July.

Chinese buyers

Besides, Chinese soybean buyers are in town too, with 2022-23 US export commitments of the oilseed to the country up by 26% over the past month to nearly 21m tonnes, up by 11% year on year.

The amount of that yet to ship, at 11.1m tonnes, is up by 47% year on year. That isn’t the kind of trade you want to leave at risk of cancellation, in Brazil’s favour.