By Linda H. Smith, DTN Markets Editor
ORELAND, Pa. (DTN) — For the third year in a row, farmers in the Red River Valley are beset with unwanted moisture. As snow melts on already-saturated ground and flows into streams and rivers, producers stare out their windows waiting to get in the fields.
Old-crop grain movement is being affected as well. This week, BNSF Railway Co. said half a dozen lines were shut down in North Dakota and Canadian Pacific rerouted trains in Manitoba due to flooding. Along the Mississippi River, a number of locks were closed — notably three between Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa, Friday. In addition, there were safety advisories in effect, including limits on the number of barges, the speed at which they can operate and the hours, with nighttime restrictions.
However, “it’s spring,” said Ken Eriksen of Informa Economics. “This level of disruption really isn’t unusual.” Railroads generally can reroute shipments around trouble spots and, unless heavy rains continue, the worst may be over on the river, he said. “St. Paul is getting through its major flood stage and should be OK by Monday. The flooding stage should reach Rock Island [Illinois] late Saturday and should crest by a week from today. The record level there was 22 feet 6 inches in 1993; it is 17 feet now and projected to peak at 20 feet. Likewise, the flood stage for the month to date at St. Louis is 22 feet versus 26 feet last year and an average of 19 feet.”
The lower Mississippi isn’t affected much, Eriksen said. “There, it is all about the Ohio River and its main locations are expected to crest next week, mainly at moderate levels.”
The situation would be more serious were it not for the fact that barge movement had already eased off some, likely due to high prices and world competition.
“We have seen phenomenal upbound fertilizer volume since the fourth quarter of 2010, and it is still running pretty strong. But after the surge in downward grain shipments the week of the river reopening, they have eased back. Barge movement this week will end at about 517,000 tons, down from the peak of 684,000 the week of April 2, and 622,000 this time last year. Barge rates have dropped along with volume, though the cost is still well above a year ago.”
The key factor to whether it is business as usual for transportation or whether headaches set in is the weather.
“Things have definitely taken a turn for the worse since Monday,” said Mike Palmerino, DTN senior ag meteorologist. “A week ago, I would have said things looked pretty good for corn planting. Now we appear to be in the more classic wet pattern we’ve seen the past two years.”
Palmerino cites a frontal boundary with cold to the north and heat to the south. “There is a parade of storms coming into the Pacific Northwest; they ride along that frontal boundary. Now we have a high-pressure ridge in the Southeast which will steer moisture from the Gulf into the middle of the country. The moisture outcome may not be as bad as 2008 or 2009, but the characteristics are more in keeping with those years,” he said. “It is amazing how rapidly weather indicators fell into a ‘here-we-go-again’ situation.”
In a best-case scenario, soils might dry out in the last week of April and farmers might get into fields the first week of May. “But I’m not sure even that will happen,” Palmerino said.
Informa’s weather outlook remains wet for the next seven to 10 days as a series of storms move from Missouri across the Ohio Valley and southern Great Lakes, adding up to 3/4 inch to 2 inches. This suggests the best-case scenario may, indeed, not materialize.
Linda H. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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