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

Young corn plants in soil
FertilizerNutrients For Life Foundation Launches New Environmental Science Supplement For High School Teachers
April 13, 2016
The Nutrients for Life Foundation released the latest resource for high school teachers entitled Feeding the World & Protecting the Read More
Flooded corn in Indiana
FertilizerLa Niña Or El Niño: Both Affect Growers’ Nitrogen Investments
April 12, 2016
Submitted by Verdesian Life Sciences As growers prepare for planting, they will be anxiously checking the weather forecast. Midwest growers Read More
Soybean Field
FertilizerCompass Minerals Launches Protassium+ Organic Sulfate Of Potash
April 5, 2016
Organic crop growers now have a pure, consistent and reliable potassium fertilizer option with the release of Protassium+ Organic sulfate Read More
An employee moves dry fertilizer into a blending hopper.
FertilizerReport: Fertilizer Industry Supports More Than A Half Million U.S. Jobs
April 4, 2016
Fertilizers are well known for their contribution to the world’s food supply, but until now, the economic value and jobs Read More
Trending Articles
Eric SfiligojMissing The Family Ties In Agriculture
April 25, 2016
By its nature, the agriculture market is cyclical. Up and down cycles come and go with a regular pattern. For Read More
HerbicidesHerbicide Resistance In Waterhemp Continues To Grow
April 22, 2016
Twenty-five years ago, waterhemp was virtually unknown to Illinois farmers. Today, the broadleaf weed blankets corn and soybean fields across Read More
Eric SfiligojBiotech Corn Drop More Economics Vs. Consumer Rejection
April 18, 2016
Since their introduction into the agricultural marketplace, biotech crops has steadily grown in acreage in the countries of the world Read More
Crop InputsBayer: 5 Reasons We Disagree With Maryland Neonic Ban
April 12, 2016
We’re disappointed that the Maryland legislature chose not to stand up for sound science and the rights of Maryland’s homeowners Read More
Corn
OpinionChallenging Global Economic Conditions Putting More Heat On U.S. Ag Retailers
April 7, 2016
There it is. That vague, slightly sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. Things are getting weird out there. Read More
ScoutPro iPad
Precision AgWhat’s Trending In Soil Testing And Scouting
April 6, 2016
Keeping up on soil testing and scouting, especially following unusual weather conditions, can play a role in maximizing yields. Soil Read More
Latest News
BAICOR
CropLife 100BRANDT Acquires Utah Specialty Fertilizer Company
April 28, 2016
BRANDT, a leading agriculture retailer and manufacturer of specialty ag products, has acquired a majority interest in BAICOR, L.C. BAICOR, Read More
Soybean field
Industry NewsVerdesian Life Sciences Adds Vice President Of Business…
April 28, 2016
Verdesian Life Sciences has announced the addition of Marc Treurniet to the plant health and nutrition company’s management team. Treurniet Read More
ManagementBiotech Crops Developments and Millennials
April 28, 2016
Editors Eric Sfiligoj and Paul Schrimpf talk about the latest activities in biotech crops and a major shift in the Read More
Industry NewsNachurs-Alpine, Pathway Biologic Extend Marketing Agree…
April 28, 2016
Nachurs-Alpine Solutions (Marion, OH) and Pathway Biologic (Plant City, FL) announce an extension to their exclusive marketing agreement specific to Read More
MicronutrientsCharah Add Three Warehouses For SUL4R-PLUS Fertilizer
April 28, 2016
Charah, Inc., a total solutions company providing unparalleled service and innovation for the coal-fired power generation industry, announced today that Read More
Spenser Forgey, Yahama Fortix
FungicidesIndiana Farmer Wins Arysta LifeScience FORTIX Fungicide…
April 28, 2016
Arysta LifeScience North America recently presented Spenser Forgey, a grower from Young America, IN, with a new 2016 Yamaha Grizzly Read More
Corn Field
HerbicidesNew Wilbur‐Ellis Herbicide Targets Volunteer Corn
April 28, 2016
Wilbur‐Ellis Co., a recognized leader in marketing and distribution of crop protection products, as well as precision agriculture technology, has Read More
StewardshipNRCS To Help Farmers Measure Conservation Impacts On Wa…
April 27, 2016
The USDA has announced the availability of $2 million to help farmers install edge-of-field stations that monitor water quality as Read More
Planter in Iowa
EquipmentTop 10 Twitter Pics For #Plant16
April 27, 2016
Despite some wet weather in parts of the Midwest, growers and ag retailers are working feverishly to plant this year’s Read More
HerbicidesHELM AGRO Launches New HELM Sulfentrazone 4F Herbicide
April 26, 2016
HELM AGRO US, Inc. has announced the federal Section 3 registration of its new HELM Sulfentrazone 4F herbicide. Classified as a Read More
Valley Irrigation Valley 8000 series on corn
EquipmentValley Irrigation Receives Environmental Stewardship Ho…
April 26, 2016
Valley Irrigation has been recognized as a Groundwater Guardian Green Site by the Groundwater Foundation. The Groundwater Guardian Green Site Read More
Eric SfiligojMissing The Family Ties In Agriculture
April 25, 2016
By its nature, the agriculture market is cyclical. Up and down cycles come and go with a regular pattern. For Read More
HerbicidesHerbicide Resistance In Waterhemp Continues To Grow
April 22, 2016
Twenty-five years ago, waterhemp was virtually unknown to Illinois farmers. Today, the broadleaf weed blankets corn and soybean fields across Read More
ManagementIllinois Leads The Nation In 4R Certified Nutrient Mana…
April 22, 2016
As Illinois agriculture works to educate farmers about minimizing environmental impact and optimizing the use of ag nutrients, Illinois now leads Read More
Social media
Matt Hopkins7 Social Media Trends Shaping Ag Retail In 2016
April 22, 2016
After writing my last column on why social media is a must for ag retailers, I heard from several readers Read More
Industry NewsArysta LifeScience Adds Corey Abels To Midwest Sales Te…
April 22, 2016
Arysta LifeScience North America recently announced the addition of Corey Abels as Territory Sales Manager for the Midwest region. In Read More
Soybean Field
HerbicidesHELM AGRO US Unveils New Sheridan 25 WG Herbicide
April 22, 2016
HELM AGRO US, Inc. has announced the federal Section 3 registration of its new Sheridan 25 WG herbicide for selective Read More
ManagementCentennial’s Jim Fargo Talks Ag Retail
April 21, 2016
Special guest Jim Fargo discusses challenges facing this CropLife 100 retailer. Read More