Extreme weather events or the lack of a major disease outbreak can make it hard to determine if the price of inputs was worth it. One exception is micronutrients: It doesn’t matter if you gamble on protecting your crop against insects or disease if your plants aren’t healthy to begin with.
In general, 2009 doesn’t look very positive for fertilizer manufacturers. Due to accumulating inventories and weak demand, large-scale producers such as Potash Corp., Agrium, Yara International, and Mosaic have laid off workers, temporarily shuttered some facilities, and reduced production.
Price fluctuations also have hit the micronutrient market, but not as severely as NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potash). Dirk Lohry, president, Nulex Inc., explains that unlike NPK fertilizers, “Most of the cost of producing a micronutrient is in the processing, packaging, and transportation.” Price swings for micronutrients can come from the cost of raw materials or consumer demand, Lohry says, explaining that some organic chelating agents vary in price along with oil; therefore, their costs doubled when the price of oil doubled. Other elements aren’t as reliant on such fluctuations, says Lohry. “For example,” he says, “the price of elemental zinc has ranged from $2 per pound to $0.60 today. But most zinc used in fertilizers comes from secondary sources, which are less prone to price fluctuations. The price of micronutrients don’t vary as much, but the demand or volume does.”
Jeff Ivan, manager of marketing and business development, Tiger-Sul Products, agrees that the zinc market last year was a challenge. “We saw significant increases in the raw material costs and then a drop after the global market downturn,” he says.
Rod Riech, sales and marketing coordinator, specialty formulations division, Brandt Consolidated, describes the last year as an “overall decline in the metal markets, unlike the extreme peaks and valleys found with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.” Riech adds that prices in some of the organic and industrial chemicals used in the manufacturing process of certain micronutrient chemistries are still showing increases.
Change Of Strategy
Global fertilizer prices are expected to be considerably lower in 2009 than in 2008 because of reduced demand and the global financial crisis, reports Rabobank Group. Although micronutrients have experienced less price volatility than macronutrients, businesses have had to make changes to ride out the economic downturn.
“The economy is causing a more conservative approach to inventory purchases by retailers and the change to in-field purchases by farmers rather than the pre-planned and pre-booked approaches that were the norm over the past few years,” says Kerry Green, managing director of Wolf Trax. Wolf Trax’s market approach “is based on a long-term strategy of providing greater value, and helping the fertilizer retail system differentiate with unique products and services,” says Green. “This strategy certainly is effective in a booming economy, but is even more effective when times are tight.”
Lohry provides a metaphor: “As an agricultural supplier, we ride the waves of the agricultural economy,” he says. “Usually the waves are smooth and rolling; lately, the waves have been large swells with breakers. We have to adapt to the changing economic conditions. The state of the ag economy today is unprecedented. Micronutrients are treated like the luxury items on a new car. When money is tight, micronutrient sales are the first to decline.”
Ivan describes how Tiger-Sul is riding those waves. “We managed our inventory by communicating with our customers regarding the market,” he says. “Our volume remained on target and sales were as forecasted, but it was a definite challenge. The down economy definitely affected our Q4 business as the commodity markets were all correcting during that period,” Ivan continues. The company is forecasting a stronger spring as much fall business has been deferred. Ivan foresees a challenge in transportation logistics to ensure the fertilizers are able to get to the markets in time for spring. “Again,” he says, “we are communicating with our customers the concerns here and are working with them to ensure they have their needs covered.”
According to Riech, Brandt Consolidated has remained mostly unaffected so far. “Not to say we haven’t seen our share of ups and downs,” Riech says. “It’s a continuous balancing act. Staying focused on our core values has been the key to our success — highest quality products, customer service, relationships, and technology and innovation.” Riech adds that the down economy “is actually working in our favor at this point. We are starting to see price softening in the metal markets, which makes pricing and marketing of micronutrients more attractive to the farmer or grower. We are focusing on educating our customers on both the agronomic and economic benefits of micronutrient use and how a wellrounded micronutrient program is vital to today’s yield and quality standards. “
When asked how growers will try to maximize their budgets in this economy, Green says: “I think you will see growers looking more closely at costs and also using other tools such as soil tests to determine the crop’s need more precisely. Nutrients that have been over-applied in the past will be affected the most. Some areas suffer from extreme zinc or manganese deficiency, and we do not anticipate growers cutting back on these elements.”
Nulex’s Lohry observes: “Growers tend to cut from the micronutrients to nitrogen in the reverse order they are displayed: Zn – S – K – P – N,” he notes. “Micros are the first to get cut and nitrogen is the last. Much of the reduction of the nutrients is due to emotional reactions rather than calculating economic returns.”
It’s not all-or-nothing, though; growers can save money on inputs and still protect their crops. “Many factors contribute to the decisions growers have to make when it comes to nutrient applications,” says Riech. “Every nutrient is a key player at some point throughout the plant’s life cycle. 2008 probably saw more fine tuning inputs with targeted micronutrient applications.”
Brandt Consolidated doesn’t recommend money saving strategies, but rather money maximizing strategies, Riech explains. “For example, mixing zinc with a starter fertilizer on corn will increase the plant’s ability to use the available phosphorus, which is important in root development. Another example would be an application of boron, such as Brandt’s N-Boron product, with your later season fungicide application. Boron is essential for the assimilation of nitrogen and potassium and timed with a fungicide application makes them both more available as the plant heads into its reproductive stage, a time when efficient nutrient assimilation and metabolism is vital.”
Riech says ideally, a micronutrient program should contain both soil and foliar applied micronutrients, “as timing of application of a specific element is important. Matching the timing of micronutrient applications with current herbicide, insecticide, and fungicide applications is also important economically by applying both in a single tank mix.”
The advice from Green is: “Seek efficiency wherever you can. For example,” he says, “Wolf Trax micronutrients are formulated to coat dry fertilizer effectively, resulting in even and consistent distribution throughout the blend and right onto the field, leading to more efficient uptake; less product is tied up in the soil, so growers see greater return for their input dollar,” says Green. “Where deficiency is a little more spotty or unknown, we would recommend foliar applications of DDP (dry dispersible powder) micronutrients. A foliar approach allows you to more quickly respond in-season. In a more general sense, we would recommend the grower seek ways to do everything in balance — do not cut back only on one area of your inputs — try and balance your reductions across the whole spectrum.”
Ivan also recommends a balanced approach. “Cutting back incorrectly can result in a significant loss of yield and return for the grower,” he says. “We have done a considerable amount of work over the past few years on the many benefits of Tiger Sulphur fertilizers and how sulfur dramatically affects the uptake of nitrogen. We have been able to show a dramatic improvement of nitrogen with the addition of sulfur in the blend vs. NPK only applications.
“Recent research on high fermentable corn for ethanol production also showed a dramatic increase in corn yield from 151.9 bu/acre to 175.4 bu/acre, while also increasing the starch content from 57% to 64%,” describes Ivan. “The results when compared to NPK-only applications clearly showed the value of sulfur for balanced fertility for corn production.”
Lohry notes that most universities and independent soil testing labs take the economy into account. “Using fertilizer rates based on those calculated, tested, and objective recommendations will give a grower the best probability of maximum economic return,” he says, adding: “Anything else is just random speculation or stubborn refusal to grasp the new economic conditions.”
As for the panel’s view on 2009? “We are very positive in our outlook for this year,” says Green, who describes Wolf Trax’s strategies as providing greater value and helping retailers differentiate with unique products and services. “In addition, DDP micronutrients have some very unique attributes that lend themselves to just-in-time shipping and handling in an economical manner.” These benefits and another year of excellent performance in the field make Green optimistic for 2009.
“We are in the product development stage of several new products and will be testing these in the field this year,” Green continues, as well as “focusing on building the market for PROTINUS, our new seed nutrition product in additional crops and markets. We’ve seen some excellent early plant health and yield performance in 2008 trials, and we will be working with customers in the seed industry to help introduce the benefits of PROTINUS to their farmer customers.”
Lohry isn’t quite as upbeat. “I would characterize the business outlook as uncertain,” he says. “Volatility and large swings in prices and volumes will be the norm. Some of the uncertainty comes from energy market fluctuations.” Most of Nulex’s micronutrients locally go to growing corn — one-third of which is used in ethanol. “Ethanol production is profitable when the price of oil is high and the price of corn is low. We are in an unprecedented irrational market. The micronutrient business will be either good or bad, but probably not in the middle.
“Managing risk, especially price risk, is an important part of our marketing this year,” Lohry continues. “We are looking at ways to share the risk from the supplier to the farmer. The fear of price and material availability has been the major reason customers have not bought.”
Ivan echoes the uncertainty: “Micronutrient sales for 2009 are forecast to continue to grow, but if commodity prices remain low heading into spring, we may see flat results due to concerns with input costs,” he speculates. “Since Tiger Micronutrients Fertilizers are expanding globally into new markets, the product line will continue to grow. Many regions of the world are sulfur deficient, and the Tiger Micronutrients fertilizer line helps to manage their sulfur needs as well as their micronutrient needs.
“Tiger-Sul has many R&D projects on-the-go with a few new products being tested for 2009,” he says. “New for this year is a Tiger Corn Mix PPI designed for preplant and incorporated application on corn. The formulation contains 80% sulfur with 2% zinc and provides a superior distribution of zinc at 100 pounds/acre application. The sulfur component will also improve nitrogen use efficiency by providing a season-long availability of sulfur throughout the growing season. In areas prone to nutrient loss or under irrigation, the season-long release charchacteristics of sulfur provide an improved efficiency of the applied nutrient.”
Brandt’s overall outlook for 2009 is very positive, according to Riech. “Growers are looking for products to help add to their bottom line, and they need to take a strong look at micronutrients and how they enhance the overall nutrition and plant health of today’s crops,” he says. “Through research and development we are continually improving and looking at chemistries to help aid in transporting nutrients throughout the plant more efficiently. Continued refinement of our Manni-Plex technology has maintained its presence in today’s market as a premiere foliar nutritional by enhancing the overall physiological functions of the plant. Future focus will concentrate on delivery and uptake mechanisms for micronutrients tailored to the key physiological requirements for crops. No longer viewed as just correcting deficiencies,” Riech summarizes, “micronutrients must be integrated to complete a total nutrient management program.”