Fertilizer Logistics Strained, Nitrogen And Urea Supplies Dwindling

Barges loaded with fertilizer await unloading.
Barges loaded with fertilizer await unloading.

The frenzied push to plant this year’s U.S. corn crop in the face of repeated delays has exposed a strained link in the agricultural network: fertilizer.

After one of the slowest starts to sowing on record due to heavy rains, farmers sprinted into action, planting about 42 million acres of corn in one week last month – a record and almost twice as much as the typical season’s peak planting week.

However, the logistics for bringing key crop nutrients like urea and liquid nitrogen to the Midwest from the Gulf of Mexico or Canada – and then distributing them to growers – failed to keep pace as dealers were overwhelmed by the surge in demand.

The problem was not the global supply of fertilizer, which is ample; it was getting it to the right place at the right time.

The logistical strain helps explain why it took farmers longer than usual to get their crops fully planted, despite an unprecedented pace in certain weeks. It also fuels doubts about yields, which can be hurt when crops are planted late.

USDA on Wednesday lowered its outlook for the autumn corn harvest 1% from last month due to reduced yield expectations.

“There are a lot of growers that have been impacted,” said Alan Hagie, chief executive of Hagie Manufacturing, an Iowa-based manufacturer of self-propelled agricultural sprayers.

“They’re struggling to get all this fertilizer on at once and it’s moving so much faster than it used to.”

Farmers are able to sow crops faster than ever thanks to massive planters that cover 36 rows of corn at a time and feature global positioning systems that allow them to plant 24 hours a day if they want.

Fertilizer dealers, who are accustomed to doling out crop nutrients over a longer period of time, have not seen similar advancements. Many do not keep extra fertilizer on hand, fearing they may be stuck with it in the fall, when prices often drop.

Farmers contract to buy nutrients months in advance but can take delivery at any time over a period of weeks. With heavy rains thwarting planting through much of the spring, precisely predicting that demand was harder than usual.

Key types of fertilizer like urea are imported to the United States from the Middle East and China and travel to Midwest farms by barge up the Mississippi River and then by train or truck.

It takes up to 65 days to move fertilizer from origin to the farmstead, and farmers are able to load out material three times faster than distributors can restock it, according to CHS Inc., the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative.

“When the farmer wants to go that fast, which is becoming increasingly more routine, the system has a very difficult time keeping up with it,” said Brian Schouvieller, senior vice president of agriculture business for CHS.

His company is among those, including Agrium Inc and Koch Industries Inc, that are planning to build or expand more than three dozen fertilizer plants and storage facilities across the United States. The trend is fueled both by demand for closer proximity to farms as well as cheap prices for natural gas, which is the main feedstock for ammonia nitrogen fertilizer.

But the solution won’t be quick. The $1.4 billion nitrogen manufacturing plant in North Dakota that CHS is building, its first, is set to start up in 2016.

Agrium, the largest U.S. farm retailer of crop inputs, last week stepped back from two projects that would have expanded its capacity to make nitrogen-based fertilizer, partly because competitors are pursuing similar plans.

The company did not respond to a request for comment on the logistical shortfalls.

No More Nitrogen

The strains emerged as U.S. farmers set out to plant 97.3 million acres of corn, the most since 1936 and nearly a quarter more than a decade ago, according to USDA.

In North Dakota, agricultural supplier Alton Agronomy temporarily ran out of nitrogen as planting conditions improved in mid-May, said Robin Stene, general manager of Halstad Elevator Company. Halstad is part of a group of cooperatives that own Alton Agronomy.

“When everything is going to happen in 10 days, logistically there’s going to be shortages around,” Stene said, referring to the fast pace of planting.

Farmers were left with a vexing choice: plow ahead and risk a diminished yield or await new supplies and push crop development deeper into the hotter, more hazardous summer months.

In Minnesota, Salol Elevators temporarily ran out of urea, causing corn farmers to “actually shut their operations down waiting for fertilizer,” Andy Pulk, a farmer who sits on the elevator’s board, said.

He said he postponed planting fields of canola due to the shortage and never sowed about 30% of the acres he had intended.

Corn yields get a boost if farmers apply nitrogen at planting time because the fertilizer helps kick off the growing process, North Dakota State University agronomist Joel Ransom said.

He said the biggest threat to yields so far has been planting beyond the optimal date, which differs by state – in North Dakota, for instance, it was May 1. On average, agronomists estimate that yields drop about a bushel per day for each day’s delay.

Farmers have a month-long window to apply nutrients after planting without seriously hurting yields. Crops suffer stress if they grow too long without it.

“There definitely was a lack of capacity to meet the needs on some of those busy days,” Ransom said.

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Fertilizer Logistics Strained, Nitrogen And Urea Supplies Dwindling

Fertilizer Stories
FertilizerFall Fertility 2014: Forecasting Fertilizer Use
September 7, 2014
Great crops this year have tapped the soil, and fall work is definitely called for, but how challenging will that get? Read More
Aerial view of the West Fertilizer explosion site
FertilizerFertilizer Companies Blame City For West, TX, Explosion
August 6, 2014
El Dorado Chemical Co. and CF Industries contend the city failed to properly train the first responders and had insufficient protocols in place to battle the April 17, 2013, blaze at West Fertilizer Co. that triggered the explosion. Read More
FertilizerThe Fertilizer Institute: New President, Renewed Energy
February 3, 2014
Chris Jahn relishes the opportunity to lead the organization through the challenging times ahead. Read More
FertilizerA New Cycle For Fertilizer Demand
January 2, 2014
Changes in the corn market could have a major impact on the crop nutrients sector in 2014, say experts. Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100Pinnacle Agriculture Acquires Minnesota Retailer
April 14, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings, LLC, ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100,  has successfully acquired Liebl Ag, LLC in Ada, MN.  Read More
CropLife 100CHS, Aurora Cooperative Complete Fertilizer Storage, Grain Shuttle Loading Facility
April 13, 2015
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading cooperative and ranked No. 5 on the CropLife 100, and Aurora Cooperative (ranked No. 21) Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK Acquires Missouri Refined Fuels Terminal
April 2, 2015
Bloomington, IL-based GROWMARK and Magellan Pipeline Co. have entered into an agreement in which GROWMARK will acquire the refined fuels Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Acquires South Dakota Retailer
April 2, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co.’s Agribusiness Division, a recognized leader in precision agriculture technology and the distribution and marketing of plant protection, seed Read More
CropLife 100The McGregor Co. Closes Smith-Kem Acquisition
April 2, 2015
The McGregor Co. — ranked No. 16 on the CropLife 100 list of largest U.S. ag retailers — has completed Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Latest News
Industry NewsCHS Insurance Names New Director Of Sales
April 17, 2015
Bryan Lewis has been named director of sales for CHS Insurance, the nation’s largest agribusiness insurance broker and full-service insurance Read More
Mature Waterhemp in Corn
HerbicidesGenetic Literacy Project: There’s No Such Thing A…
April 17, 2015
Read the latest “analysis” on GMOs from Consumer Reports and you’ll “learn” that glyphosate, the chemical developed by Monsanto (its Read More
HerbicidesNew Resistance To 2,4-D Discovered In Australia
April 17, 2015
In a world-first case of herbicide resistance, researchers have confirmed that sowthistle weed in the south east of South Australia Read More
ManagementNews From RTP Company Visits and Growers Buying Older S…
April 16, 2015
Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss recent trips to the Research Triangle Park area and market seed sales trends. Read More
soybean field
StewardshipNew ASABE Standard Establishes Framework For Sustainabl…
April 16, 2015
The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) has initiated a project to develop a new standard to establish Read More
MicronutrientsSouthern States: An Inside Look At Our Tissue Sampling …
April 15, 2015
Remember learning about the food pyramid in school? The nutritional diagram recommends the proper amount of nutrients you need on Read More
Industry NewsArysta Adds New U.S. Fungicides Marketing Manager
April 15, 2015
Arysta LifeScience North America recently hired Deneen Sebastian as its Marketing Manager for U.S. Row Crops, Fungicides. Most recently, Sebastian Read More
FungicidesVerdesian Launches Phosphite-Based Cereal Fungicide
April 14, 2015
A new, phosphite-based fungicide designed for improved suppression of deoxynivalenol (DON) in wheat and barley infected by Fusarium head blight Read More
Mature Waterhemp in Corn
HerbicidesSURVEY: Close To 90% Of Growers Battle Weed Resistance
April 14, 2015
Herbicide resistance management continues to be a priority for corn and soybean growers, and they’re working together more effectively to Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Agriculture Acquires Minnesota Retailer
April 14, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings, LLC, ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100,  has successfully acquired Liebl Ag, LLC in Ada, MN.  Read More
StewardshipFMC Corp. Joins Sustainable Agriculture Alliance
April 14, 2015
FMC Corp. has joined Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a multi-stakeholder initiative working to define, measure and Read More
Industry NewsArysta Adds Two To Goëmar Sales Team
April 14, 2015
Arysta LifeScience North America recently announced two new additions to the Goëmar sales team: Steve Kelly, Technical Service Manager – Read More
Valley Variable Rate Irrigation
Precision AgVariable Rate Irrigation Gains Followers
April 14, 2015
Irrigation systems have had the ability to apply different amounts of water throughout a field for decades, using timers that Read More
CropLife 100CHS, Aurora Cooperative Complete Fertilizer Storage, Gr…
April 13, 2015
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading cooperative and ranked No. 5 on the CropLife 100, and Aurora Cooperative (ranked No. 21) Read More
Soybean field
Industry NewsThree Ag Co-ops Poised For Possible Merger
April 13, 2015
Following months of study and preparations, the Board of Directors for United Farmers Coop (UFC), Farmers Elevator Cooperative (FEC) and Read More
Eric SfiligojAgriculture Braces For More Belt-Tightening
April 13, 2015
Spring is in full bloom across the U.S. and ag retailers and their grower-customers are busily getting into high gear. Read More
ManagementPollinator Health and Washington, DC
April 9, 2015
CropLife America’s Kellie Bray speaks with CropLife Editor Eric Sfiligoj regarding bee health and proposed Beltway regulations. Read More
InsecticidesValent Takes On MGK Insecticide Portfolio
April 9, 2015
As of April 1, Valent U.S.A. Corp. became the exclusive provider of the MGK crop protection line of insect control Read More