The drought-stricken Mississippi River is at its lowest levels in nearly 50 years, which has made barge navigation much more difficult and disrupted the loading and unloading of barges at ports along the river. Ports have become too shallow, and some have required dredging. Companies now reduce their barge loads to avoid bottoming out, using four barges to haul the same amount that three would ordinarily haul, so that the barges sit higher in the water. More barges have meant more trips, leading to increased transportation costs.
The most important time of the year for ports is when agriculture harvests arrive. Ports do half of their annual business between August and November, and if barges are unable to load or unload, then shippers will divert to other modes of transportation. Some terminals have switched about 10% of their annual volume to rail and truck because of the inability to meet minimum loads through normal barge shipping. A common tow of 15 barges carries the capacity of more than 1000 trucks, so if vessels can't load, that means more trucks on the road, and eventually higher costs to consumers.
Grain is loaded into barges in the north, where the grains are harvested. The loading process is relatively simple. Grain is transported from storage hoppers to a barge by a series of conveyors, and it then falls into the barge. The end of the conveyor is sometimes equipped with a deflector so that the grain stays contained to the barge's cargo area, and the conveyor itself can react to tides by raising and lowering appropriately.
Grain is unloaded in the Mississippi River delta, in and around New Orleans. The unloading of barges is conducted in a manner that minimizes the amount of cargo spilled out of the barge, and is the responsibility of the unloading facility. Unloading can be done with a Grab Bucket Barge Unloader or a Continuous Barge Unloader (CBU). The Grab Bucket system employs a clamshell bucket suspended by a set of hoisting cables, with a separate set of control cables that open and close the bucket. The CBU is a series of buckets supported between two strands of roller chain, running in a continuous loop.
The estimated amount of grain to be shipped is lower than usual this year due to the 2012 drought. Low water at the docks and terminals makes it more difficult to load or unload material, because ships have trouble getting close enough to the docks. Companies must get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge near their docks to find deeper places to load and unload. The Corps is also busy removing large portions of hazardous rock pinnacles that have surfaced elsewhere in the river.
In addition to mere loading and unloading of barges, the 2012 drought has also had a major impact on the size and quality of grain in North America. The Grain And Elevator Processing Society (GEAPS) is one organization working to determine if the 2012 drought will be a new trend that the grain industry will need to be aware of moving forward.
GEAPS is the only individual-membership organization in the grain operations industry, dedicated to providing its members with forums to generate leadership, innovation and excellence in grain-related industry operations. GEAPS is dedicated to becoming the knowledge resource of the grain handling industry.
The 84th Annual GEAPS Exchange will be February 23-26 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, KY. The 2012 drought and its impact will be a prominent topic of discussion. Heyl & Patterson is a proud member of GEAPS, and a engineer of CBUs and Grab Bucket unloaders that have been affected by the drought.
For more information about Heyl & Patterson and the machines we design to unload grain from barges, click here: