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Published September 07, 2010, 09:51 AM

Good harvest raises questions about crop transport

There could be delays ahead in moving the big 2010 harvest by rail, some area grain elevator officials worry.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

There could be delays ahead in moving the big 2010 harvest by rail, some area grain elevator officials worry.

But BNSF, the region’s most important shipper, says it’s done everything possible to prepare for the harvest and that farmers shouldn’t fret.

“Our record has been excellent” and there’s “every reason to be optimistic” about the railroad’s ability to move grain, Kevin Kaufman, BNSF agricultural products group vice president, says in an Aug. 23 podcast.

BNSF, based in Fort Worth, Texas, operates in 28 states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, in the central and western United States.

Still, area grain elevator officials have concerns.

High demand for cars

Heavy demand for grain cars have pushed up their price, a strong sign that a large amount of grain is expected to move by rail, says Steve Strege, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association in Fargo.

Delays could become most troublesome when corn is harvested this fall, he says.

Corn typically yields about three times more bushels per acre than wheat in the region, so there’s more corn to store and transport.

In Minnesota, the railroads have done a reasonably good job so far this harvest of responding to the grain industry’s needs, says Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Feed and Grain Association in Eagan.

Moving out the crop

But many producers are just now marketing some of their 2009 corn crop in response to the recent up turn in prices, he says.

That means more bushels than usual to transport during the 2010 harvest, he says.

Minnesota can ship grain on the Mississippi River, making the state less dependent on railroads for grain transportation, Zelenka says.

Minnesota also has less corn to move out of state because roughly 30 percent of the state’s corn is used by in-state ethanol plants, with most of the corn going directly from farm to plant, he says.

Grain elevators in the state naturally aren’t happy that corn is bypassing them, but the arrangement does lead to less shipping stress in years with good harvests, Zelenka says.

Expect a grain pile or two

South Dakota elevator operators are keeping a close eye on the situation, says Jarvis Haugeberg, with Dakota Feeds in Huron and president of the South Dakota Grain and Feed Association.

“There’s concern about how well we’ll be able to keep up,” he says.

It seems likely that some grain won’t be moved quickly, he says.

“We’ll be looking at grain piles (near grain elevators) across the state,” he says.

So far, railroads have done a good job keeping up with the harvest, says Mike Nickolas, with North Central Farmers Elevator in Ipswich, S.D., and a director of the state Grain and Feed Association.

He says some delays are inevitable, especially when the weather acts up, but that he’s optimistic about the harvest outlook.

Slow harvest in Montana

Kevin Bradley, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association and a Cut Bank, Mont. producer, says he hasn’t heard of any rail car-related delays in his state.

The wet summer had slowed harvest in much of the state, he says.

Lola Raska, the association’s executive vice president in Great Falls, Mont., says the availability of rain cars is about normal for this time of year.