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Waterway Woes

08:37AM Jan 03, 2015

Lockmasters worry about spring transportation 

Millions of bushels of grain are in storage and will eventually need to be moved by truck, rail or barge. With more than 60% of grain transported via our nation’s waterways, some lockmasters worry about moving 2014’s bumper crop.

The water is near frozen in Dubuque, Iowa, as ice chunks float along the mighty Mississippi River. For Lock and Dam No. 11, the cold is slowing down operations. 

“Lockage in regular water takes an hour and a half to two hours,” says Jim Piper, lockmaster for Lock and Dam No. 11. “We’re averaging six to eight hours because of the ice.”

Because of the bumper crop and frozen waterways, towing industry rates are up 20% to 60%, Piper says. He fears this could set a chain reaction.

According to The National Waterways Foundation, one barge holds more than 52,000 bu. of grain, which is equivalent to 15 jumbo rail cars and 58 large semis. Piper says Dubuque can have 30" of ice during the winter, which means barges can’t move grain.

“With all the fracking in North Dakota, they’re utilizing the rail system to transport oil,” Piper says. “So we’re really in a mess.”

According to the December 2014 Soy Transportation Coalition Report, 70% of the grain-handling facilities surveyed are experiencing faster cycle times for railroads than a year ago. Although 60% still cite rail service 
delays because of the 2014 harvest.

“This spring, the barges will be bumper to bumper to get the crops that have been stored and on the ground all winter,” Piper says. “If the rail isn’t available, I don’t know what happens.”

To watch the “AgDay” version of this story, visit