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U.S. Corn Exporters Continue Epic Run But Await More Chinese Interest

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U.S. corn exports have toppled records in the last few months with elevated shipments to China, and a continued strong pace plus a few more sales in the coming weeks will officially cap off the country’s best-ever marketing year.

The United States in May exported 8.48 million tonnes (334 million bushels) of corn according to data published on Friday by the U.S. Census Bureau. That is the third-largest volume for any month, behind March and April 2021.

In the first nine months of 2020-21 which began on Sept. 1, U.S. corn exports totaled 54.5 million tonnes, more than in the prior two full marketing years. The final quarter of the season is generally the second-busiest after March-May, though this year it should be busier than usual.

Weekly export data suggests June exports dropped considerably from the blazing third-quarter pace, but the volume, which may have approached 6.5 million tonnes, should have been well above average. That owed largely to big shipments to China, the top buyer of U.S. corn in 2020-21.

Within the last four weeks, some 43% of all U.S. corn inspected for export was destined for China. In May, a record 3.4 million tonnes of corn departed U.S. ports for China, a new monthly high. There is only one full marketing year on record (2011-12) where total shipments to the Asian country were greater than the May volume.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has pegged U.S. corn exports for 2020-21 at 2.85 billion bushels (72.4 million tonnes), nearly 17% above the record set three seasons earlier. Reaching that target would require roughly 11.5 million tonnes to be shipped in July and August, well above average but short of 2018’s high for the period.

As of June 24, sales for 2020-21 totaled 69.5 million tonnes, some 96% of USDA’s full-year export outlook. At the same week last year, about 94% of expected sales had been sold and the comparable figure for 2018 was 98%.

In 2018 and 2016, crop problems in Brazil lifted U.S. corn sales at this time of year for both old and new crop, but bookings have been relatively disappointing in recent weeks. This year, Brazil’s second corn crop has been marred by drought and more recently by frost damage.

Chinese buyers have gone on only one spree for new-crop U.S. corn and that was back in May when they booked 10.7 million tonnes. Prices have since softened but freight costs have risen. China is expecting a bumper corn harvest this year, though USDA thinks next year’s import demand will be steady with this year’s record.

USDA sees 2021-22 U.S. corn exports falling to 2.45 billion bushels, which would still be the second-largest-ever effort. Global corn demand is expected to remain strong, though U.S. exporters will have to contend with competitors like Ukraine and Brazil which are projected to harvest a larger crop in the new cycle.

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