December 2023

Exports remain the key

USDA’s World Ag Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report for December contained only one change to the US corn and soybean supply and use tables, but that change highlights the challenge for the markets in 2024. And it is a repeat from 2023, the search for stronger exports. This year, we are looking for signs of a rebound in exports. USDA’s projection shows that could be happening as they increased 2023-24 corn exports by 25 million bushels, raising projected international sales to 2.1 billion bushels for the period Sept. 1, 2023 to Aug. 31, 2024. The strength in export sales had been one of the strongest pillars supporting crop prices during the 2020 and 2021 marketing years. The 2020 marketing year set the record for bushels exported for both corn and soybeans. The 2021 marketing set the record for dollars raised via corn and soybean exports. But international sales fell off during the 2022 marketing year, as the combination of high US prices, plentiful crop supplies from other countries, and global inflation took their toll. The retreat in international demand set the stage for the price declines throughout the 2023 calendar year. But with lower prices, and an assist from weather issues in South America, export sales may be on the rebound.

Corn exports provide the best evidence for an international resurgence. Figure 1 shows the highs and lows of export sales for corn. International corn sales for the 2021-22 marketing year set the record for the most dollars earned from exports. The surge in sales was tied to the rebound in the global economy following the initial COVID wave and the implementation of the US-China Phase One trade deal. In fact, China, for a short while, became the top market for US corn exports. Beyond the surge in Chinese purchases, US corn sales were also growing in many of our traditional markets, such as Mexico and Japan.

Figure 1. US corn export sales pace.

However, those sales dramatically slowed for the 2022 crop. China slipped back behind Mexico in corn purchases. But China wasn’t the only market purchasing fewer bushels, as Japan, South Korea, and several other countries reduced their trade. The decline was global, as many countries reduced their purchases of US corn by 30% or more. Some of the major factors that led to this downturn were high US corn prices (especially relative to corn prices in other competing export countries), a stronger US dollar, the relative increase in corn production outside the US, and the availability of other feedgrains to balance out livestock rations around the globe. But recovery seems to be happening for the 2023 crop, as the figure shows. Corn export sales have recently caught back up to the five-year average.

Thus far, during the 2023-24 marketing year, corn sales are up nearly 36% in comparison to last year and are within 20 million bushels of the five-year average pace. Figure 2 details the year-over-year change in US corn export sales by country, specifically highlighting the current top six markets for US corn (listed in order from left to right across the graph). The Chinese pullback continues, but it is the only market in decline. We have seen significant increases in corn sales to our North American neighbors. Japan has more than doubled their purchases from last year at this time. Many of the factors that were pushing down exports last year have flipped. Our prices have fallen enough to be very competitive in the global market. The dollar has weakened against most currencies over the past several months. This set the stage for USDA’s upward adjustment in projected exports for the 2023 crop.

Figures 2-3

While the corn market has already reached back up to the five-year average for exports, the soybean market continues to lag last year. However, over the past five weeks, export sales have picked up and show that a similar recovery may be building for soybeans. The general trade story for soybeans over the past few years is similar to that of corn. The 2021-22 marketing year was one for the record books, with China leading the purchases. Exports for the 2022 crop started strong, but faded as the marketing year wore on. By the end of the marketing year, soybean exports fell below the five-year average. The start of the 2023 marketing year was slow, as export sales lagged the five-year average by roughly 200 million bushels. But that gap has been cut in half over the past few weeks.

However, there is still a sizable hole compared to last year. As Figure 4 shows, Chinese purchases are down by 230 million bushels this year. But the pullback in soybean export sales is not just in China, as there are a number of countries purchasing fewer US soybeans, including Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia. The factors limiting soybean exports parallel those that were limiting corn: high US prices (especially relative to prices in other competing export countries), a strong US dollar over the past couple of years, and the increase in production outside the US. The recent bump in sales was not enough to push USDA to change their soybean export projection, but the data should be watched over the next few weeks, to see if the sales pace can approach the five-year average.

Figure 4. US soybean export sales pace.

Last year at this time, I wrote "The current sales data shows that an international rebound might not be in the cards until US crop prices retreat enough to compete with other exporting countries." Well, prices have retreated, with corn prices falling more than soybeans. And that relative difference can be seen in the export recovery as well, as corn export sales look relatively better than soybeans. The outlook for price increases this winter is tied to export sales. Hopefully, the last few weeks of trade data are an indication of better days ahead.

Listen to the latest Market Outlook video for further insight on outlook for this month.


Chad E. Hart, extension economist, 515-294-9911,


Chad E. Hart

extension economist
Iowa State University
468E Heady Hall
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