Rollin' on the river?: Farmers may have trouble transporting grain because of low water levels

Sunday, November 18, 2012
Corn pours out of Jim Seiler's truck at SEMO Milling, LLC Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 at SEMO Port Authority in Cape Girardeau. Seiler, who has been farming since 1973, brought his harvest to SEMO Port from his farm near Commerce, Mo. (Laura Simon)

The fall harvest in Southeast Missouri is wrapping up, but farmers' ability to ship their grain this winter remains in question.

After battling an extreme drought and excessive heat all summer, fall rains put the harvest slightly behind schedule.

This combination has left the Mississippi River's water levels dangerously low for barges, which carry 60 percent of the nation's grain exports. They may not be able to navigate the river once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins reducing flow from a Missouri River reservoir, which it does each year around this time.

SEMO Port Authority in Scott City has seen a steady line of farmers this fall bringing grain in by truck to sell, said Dan Overbey, executive director of the port.

But in the past few years he's seen more farmers avoiding the fall rush and storing grain on their farms in an effort to wait until prices are higher before selling.

Corn pours out of Jim Seiler's truck at SEMO Milling, LLC Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 at SEMO Port Authority in Cape Girardeau. Seiler, who has been farming since 1973, brought his harvest to SEMO Port from his farm near Commerce, Mo. (Laura Simon)

This strategy may not work so well this year, as prices have fallen in the last month while shipping costs increase because of the low water. Less grain is put into each barge to allow them to pass through more shallow waters, Overbey said.

"Normally, folks here will ship barges 12-foot deep in the water, but they've already cut back to a depth of nine feet," he said. "You're only getting three-quarters of a barge loaded, but it still costs the same to run it down the river. Price per ton is already being affected some."

If water levels continue to drop, it could halt shipping between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi. Cutting the flow on the Missouri River could reduce the Mississippi up to three feet at St. Louis, according to corps estimates. And the corps has identified rocky pinnacles at Thebes, Ill., that could cause significant trouble in case of low water. On Friday, 15 senators from river states, including Missouri, signed a letter urging the corps to act to keep shipping going. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson is asking the corps to expedite dredging and clear rock pinnacles like those at Thebes to keep the shipping channel open.

The price of corn has dropped from $7.60 to as low as $7.20 in the past month. This still is about 17 percent higher than a year ago, which helps offset increased irrigation costs many Southeast Missouri corn farmers experienced this year.

"Input costs were definitely higher this year," said Anthony Ohmes, agronomy specialist for University of Missouri Extension's Southeast Region. "Prices being good all the way through harvest helped out. When you have an above-average price and below-average yield, it helps some of our producers."

Corn is loaded into a barge Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 at SEMO Port Authority in Cape Girardeau. (Laura Simon)

Corn yields varied widely this year depending on irrigation.

"The watered crops were good and the non-watered crops weren't so good. That's the simplest way to put it," said Jim Seiler, who farms just south of Commerce, Mo.

Nonirrigated corn ranged from 10 to 60 bushels-per-acre this year, while irrigated corn produced around 150 bushels-per-acre, Ohmes said.

"It cost a lot more than normal with all the fuel and electric to keep the pumps going, but considering the heat, the irrigation did good," Seiler said. "We were concerned, but the water helped a lot."

The corn harvest wrapped up around Oct. 15 in Southeast Missouri, 14 days ahead of last year and 45 days earlier than normal because of the hot, dry weather, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"In the whole state of Missouri, corn yields were way down," Ohmes said. "Most of our upland corn suffered immensely. A lot of it wasn't even harvested. It was cut for silage or just destroyed."

Crop insurance may help some in this position, he said.

While there wasn't enough rain this summer, early fall rains helped the soybean crop somewhat, but then delayed fieldwork.

The soybean harvest, which is about seven days behind last year in Missouri, is two days ahead of normal, according to the USDA.

About 86 percent of Southeast Missouri's soybeans were harvested; about 10 percent behind the same time last year, according to the most recent crop progress report.

Bootheel soybean yields were expected to be about 40 bushels per-acre, according to the USDA.

"Yields suffered a bit this year because it was difficult to keep up with the transpiration loss due to the hot and dry conditions," Ohmes said. "The plants were just transpiring so much water trying to cool themselves and stay alive."

Farmers already are putting the drought behind them and moving on to the next crop -- winter wheat.

About 91 percent of Southeast Missouri's winter wheat already is planted, according to the USDA.

"Going into the winter, wheat looks good," Ohmes said. "We've had good moisture to get it up in most spots, but a few spots where it is still kind of dry and wheat has struggled to come up."


Pertinent address:

10 Bill Bess Drive, Scott City, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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