Analysis of Truck Data in Transportation of Grain and Agricultural Products

This article has been reprinted from the April 5, 2018 USDA Grain Transportation Report.

Trucking is a critical mode of transportation for U.S. agriculture and rural communities, helping link farmers and ranchers to end markets, such as grain elevators, ethanol plants, processors, and feedlots. 

Trucks move over three-quarters of the total value and tonnage of agricultural freight and about half of agriculture’s ton-miles. 

They often provide the first and last mile of agricultural shipments. 

The efficiency and flexibility of trucking enables agricultural producers and shippers to be competitive in the global marketplace for agricultural products.

However, data on truck freight, particularly for grain and agricultural products, is limited, which makes accurately estimating the economic impact and contribution of trucking to agriculture a challenge. 

Two related data sources, the Commodity Flow Survey (CFS) and Freight Analysis Framework (FAF), provide public data to analyze truck flows. 

This article briefly describes CFS and FAF and highlights key transportation characteristics of agricultural truck freight, including truck’s movement of grain and agricultural products.

CFS and FAF: Major Data Sources for Truck Flows

CFS and FAF both provide freight data across all modes, including multi-modal shipments, and both programs cover the full spectrum of commodities. 

This enables insight into the nature of grain and other agricultural shipments. 

While CFS and FAF are related, they are not the same. 

The CFS scope covers mining, manufacturing, wholesale, and other selected industries. 

It is conducted by asking business establishments to report destinations, weights, and modes for a sample of individual shipments. 

FAF uses the definitions established by CFS, and then expands the economic coverage by estimating shipments from industries that are not covered by CFS.

For more information about these two sources, see the sidebar. 

Since CFS excludes farm-based shipments, FAF uses data from USDA and other sources to estimate the volumes, values, and movements of this sector.

Consequently, FAF generates markedly higher estimates of truck’s share of the total value, tonnage, and ton-miles compared to CFS. 

For example, the estimated truck tonnage for grain and agricultural products was 1.15 billion tons in FAF, but only 0.36 billion tons in CFS, over three times larger. 

Similarly, FAF’s estimated value and ton-miles ($451 billion and 159 billion, respectively) of these two commodity groupings were over two times larger than CFS’s estimates. 

For many rural areas, truck is the main, and sometimes only, mode of transportation to move grain and agricultural products from farms and elevators to end markets. 

The inclusion of farm-based shipments more accurately estimates truck’s contribution to the transportation system. 

The following section highlights observations from the truck freight data in FAF4, the latest version of the FAF.

Tonnage and Value by State

According to FAF data, most truck hauls of grain are in-State. For example, trucks hauled over 75 million tons within Iowa, over 69 million tons within Illinois, and over 59 million tons in Nebraska in 2012. 

The largest out-of-state truck movements of grain were from Iowa to Minnesota (7 million tons), Iowa to Nebraska (6 million tons), Illinois (10 percent), Nebraska (9 percent), Minnesota (9 percent), and Kansas (7 percent)—are located in the Corn Belt and Upper Great Plains where much of the crops are produced. 

These States also have considerable ethanol capacity and livestock operations, which rely heavily on sourcing grain by truck. 

The total tonnage from these five States accounted for almost half of all domestic truck grain shipments. 

About 90 percent of the total truck tonnage in these five States consisted of intrastate, short-distance routes. 

A majority of the total value ($72 billion) from the top five States was also in-State grain truck shipments.

The top five States for agricultural product shipments—California, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Iowa— represented 40 percent of the total annual tonnage (Figure 2). 

About 81 percent were in-State shipments. 

Similarly, the top five States for truck shipments by value (California, Texas, Washington, Florida, and New York) accounted for about 41 percent of the total value, with 74 percent of shipments remaining in-State. 

Notably, California alone consisted of 12 percent of the total tonnage and 20 percent of the total value, mostly due to its high productivity in fruits and vegetables and its closeness to major seaports

Conclusions

Trucking is an important mode in the movement of grain and agricultural products. 

While CFS and FAF offer insight into the otherwise relatively limited availability of truck data, FAF provides more farm-level observations
than CFS, making it more useful for analyzing agricultural truck movements.

One major finding using FAF data is that many agricultural truck shipments stay within States. 

Although not described in this article, FAF can support additional applications and insights such as spatial analysis and flows, and examining trends over time, using FAF’s projections at 5-year intervals through 2045. 

Overall, FAF data could be very helpful for stakeholders who want to estimate and understand truck tonnages and flows for agriculture.