Bulk Grain Ocean Dashboard
The demand for ocean transportation is derived from the global supply and demand for finished goods and basic commodities, such as grain and oilseeds. The United States exports approximately 25 percent of the grain it produces, and grain and soybeans make up more than 90 percent of U.S. waterborne bulk agricultural exports by volume. This page contains data on the number of bulk vessels servicing major U.S. grain export regions, corresponding with the pace of U.S. grain exports, and ocean freight rates. The charts on this page will stay up-to-date with the latest data: vessel loading activity is updated weekly, and vessel rates are updated monthly. So, check back often!
The two largest grain exporting regions in the U.S. are the Gulf and the PNW. Typically, a larger share of ocean-vessel loading activity (corresponding with a higher volume of grain exports) occurs in the Gulf because most U.S. export elevators are located upriver from the Gulf along the inland waterway system connected to the Mississippi River. These export elevators take advantage of barge transportation to ship bulk commodities efficiently at relatively low costs from the interior to ocean-vessel loading areas along the Gulf Coast. However, as ocean freight rates decrease from the PNW relative to the Gulf (the spread), lower ocean rates from the PNW will cause some shippers to switch their export grain shipments from the Gulf to the PNW as it becomes the overall lowest cost gateway. As the spread continues to increase, even more shippers will switch from the Gulf to the PNW, reflected in fewer exports (and vessel loading activity) through the Gulf and more through the PNW.
The first chart below (top left) shows grain vessels in-port over the past year. The second chart (top right) shows average weekly vessels in-port by month and year to facilitate a seasonal assessment of vessel loading activity. The third chart (bottom) shows monthly ocean-going grain vessel loading activity in the Gulf and PNW port regions.
Vessel Rates and Spreads
Bulk vessel owners deploy their vessels when and where they can find the greatest profit. Bulk ocean freight rates are volatile, at least in the short run, since the total supply of vessel space is relatively inelastic in that time frame. While it may take a long time for a newly built vessel to be delivered, the demand for vessel space can vary greatly. Ocean freight rates for shipping bulk grain and other agricultural products are determined in competition with the shipments of other bulk commodities such as coal, iron ore, steel, cement, fertilizer, sugar, salt, and forest products.
Using Japan as a benchmark destination for U.S grain exports to Asia, the differences in freight rates from each major export region are obvious—cheaper rates from the PNW, with direct access to Japan, versus higher rates from the Gulf, with additional time and expense to pass through the Panama Canal or around South America.
The charts below show vessel rates over time and seasonally. The chart on the left shows recent, average vessel rates from the Gulf and PNW to Japan. The chart on the right shows the ocean freight rate spread (Gulf shipping cost less the PNW cost) between the two shipping routes. The spread shows how the rates fluctuate relative to each other and indicates the relative competitiveness of each region. As the spread increases, ocean shipping rates favor the cost competitiveness of shipping grain out of the PNW. Consequently, the share of exports from the PNW tends to increase. As the spread gets closer to zero, both regions become cost competitive relative to each other, favoring the traditional flow of exports through the Gulf.
The chart below combines the ocean freight rate spread with grain inspection port shares. The bars show the average vessel rate spread; a higher spread means Gulf vessels are relatively more expensive compared to PNW vessels. The lines show the shares of total grain inspections for export from the Gulf (green) and PNW (red). Note that the Gulf and PNW, together, account for the majority of grain exports.
The chart shows the correlation between vessel rates spread and regional port shares. The Gulf's export share was highest prior to 2004 when the rate spread was the lowest, corresponding to Gulf exports being relatively inexpensive. As the rate spread grew between 2004 and 2014, the Gulf's export share decreased while the PNW export share increased. Finally, as the rate spread rose in 2017 and 2018, the PNW again gained a higher share of exports.