Hardly more than a year since Russia and Ukraine shook the world grain trade by halting grain exports, both nations are back competing for sales. And not just in traditional export markets for wheat and barley; Black Sea grain is beating out U.S. corn with some customers.

“Our return [to world grain markets] became a very powerful factor,” Alexander Korbut, vice president of the Russian Grain Union (RGU), said in December. “Now almost 20% of the world grain trade belongs to Russia and the group of three – Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Understanding the competition depends on watching three commodities – wheat, corn and barley – according to Cary Sifferath, U.S. Grains Council regional director, who monitors where Russia and Ukraine vie with U.S. corn for sales.

“Ukraine has the biggest corn production: nine to 10 million metric tons (mmt) (355 to 394 million bushels) of exports this year,” he reports. “Russia’s wheat is mostly milling quality, although some may go into feed channels,” Sifferath says.

“Ukraine’s wheat is lower quality and a lot will go for feed use. Most of the barley coming from Ukraine and Russia is for feed.”

The region’s traditional export markets are concentrated in the Mediterranean and North Africa, but Black Sea exporters are aggressively pursuing sales elsewhere. For 2012, for example, the RGU has scheduled six grain-marketing conferences, including international conferences to promote Black Sea grains in Singapore and Egypt.

So far this winter, Sifferath has seen heavy purchases of Black Sea grains by Spain and Portugal and sales into non-traditional markets like South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia.

“They’ve got a large crop and they are pricing it to move,” he says. “There’s a rumor of an 800,000 to 1 million ton (32-39 mbu) sale to Japan. Some corn and feed wheat has even gone by container to Southeast Asia,” Sifferath says.

“Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan are all increasing production of wheat, corn and barley,” says Jay O’Neil, senior agricultural economist at the International Grains Program, Kansas State University.

“As they increase, they will have larger exportable surpluses, making them a bigger competitor.”

While the region’s grain production is increasing, its livestock sectors are not growing as rapidly. So as crops get bigger, the additional supplies tend to go into export channels, Sifferath explains.

He cites another factor that benefits Black Sea exports: “In the United States, where we have ethanol and more livestock, export demand is just one factor that determines price. But if the Ukrainians need to price at a specific amount per ton to be competitive, that’s what the price will be. Their farmers’ prices are pretty much dictated by the FOB price at Odessa, less transportation costs.”