Fertilizer Blenders Facing Unprecedented Demands
With limited fertilizer going down last fall, this spring promises to be intense, with blender output playing a major role.
Dealers will be tasked with putting a lot of product out in a very short window, says Mark Anderson, vice president of North American sales/West for Yargus Manufacturing. “It seems like under normal fall application times and the recent weather patterns we’ve had over the past several years, spring application season is getting shorter,” he says. “Now you add last fall’s lack of output due to the weather conditions — plus growers’ hesitation to do a fall application of fertilizer — and we’re gearing up for some long days this spring.”
In fact, Shawn Hudspeth at Adams Fertilizer Equipment reports that other than in small pockets, there was very little, if any, fertilizer put down last fall.
Then too, logistics for truck and rail are not forecasted to improve in 2015, so reliable, high-speed in-and-out fertilizer production will be needed for modern plants to keep up, adds Drew Taylor, vice president of North American sales/East at Yargus.
Besides fall repercussions, manufacturers offer a number of perspectives on how lower commodity prices may impact this fertilizer season. “Most growers have realized that cutting fertilizer for cost reasons is like shooting yourself in the foot,” says Hudspeth. “Growers might change to a lower fertilizer use crop but do not seem to cut fertilizer like in the past.
“We have increased our inventory almost 30% from 2014 to compensate for the small fertilizer application window in the spring of 2015,” he reports.
Charles Formisani, vice president, sales at A.J. Sackett & Son, says he doesn’t see any slow-down in the near future. “There’s a lot of drivers leading to new and upgraded retail plants including the need for higher output and advancing crop nutrient technologies and EEPs,” he notes. To help keep up, Sackett has invested in an additional manufacturing facility which came on line mid last year.
Rob Henderson, vice president of sales and marketing with Waconia Manufacturing, doesn’t see the uptick in the ag economy over the past few years as a bubble. Rather, it is truly dealers looking at their operations, staff and customers and upgrading their companies to keep up with technology and customers’ demands.
Ever larger, faster mixers continue to be top sellers. Formisani says the demand comes from growers wanting to get more crops planted in a shorter amount of time. “Retailers have to get more fertilizer out in a given day, and they’re getting more tons out per year,” he says.
Then too, retailers are continuing to consolidate, so there are fewer blend plants — and they simply need to be bigger.
Formisani believes the blender market has entered its most demanding phase yet. Customers want not only reliable, robust units that blend more quickly than ever, they want very accurately mixed fertilizer — that includes blends with enhanced efficiency products (EEPs).
“In the past, if systems got faster, they could sacrifice accuracy of the blend quality. Or if they got more accurate, but then they had to be really slow. Now, people don’t want to sacrifice either of those,” he says. This is the first time ever that customers have seen durability, speed and precision as non-negotiables.
Stabilizer and enhancement products have become a huge part of new fertilizer retailer business, says Yargus’ Taylor, and so his company and others are investing money and resources in R&D to determine how to handle these newcomers. In fact, EEPs have posed a challenge for both equipment companies and makers of the products in the areas of efficiency, safety and coverage during mixing. Yargus has been working with EEP suppliers to develop a delivery and/or blending system that will incorporate these three musts for both liquid and powder products. The company currently has solutions for its Declining Weigh Blending System and stand alone systems and is working on solutions for its batch mixers.
Formisani points to the sheer number of new fertilizer additives coming out, “whether they’re powders, liquids, nitrogen stabilizers, biostimulants or fungicides.” All the different products now available can be a challenge to retailers — not only which products to use but how to get them onto the fertilizer efficiently.
For its part, Sackett introduced a technology called Precision Fertilizer Blending (PFB), which is designed around the efficient, accurate and fast incorporation of EEPs onto fertilizers. To accomplish this, PFB utilizes a very different mixer from what has traditionally been used in the fertilizer industry. This mixer is now an integral part of all Sackett blend towers, says Formisani.
“Even if a retailer is not utilizing EEPs now, most likely they will need to in the future. Another important feature of this technology is batch weighing,” he adds. “With blends getting more and more complex, more EEPs will be added and because of that, probably in increasingly smaller quantities. PFB towers batch weigh all individual ingredients in NTEP scales giving the most accurate formulation possible.”
Some retailers are encouraged that EEPs allow them to differentiate themselves in their markets. “If everyone is going to sell blends of urea, DAP and potash, they’re all the same,” Formisani says. “Once you add proprietary N stabilizers or proprietary humate or biostimulants, for example, you have value-added products that separate what you offer from competitors. The addition of the EEP alone is not enough; the quality of the addition is what ultimately makes the difference to the grower.”
Henderson believes there’s no doubt even more stabilizers and enhancers will be used with additional conservation efforts in place. He sees the products as a challenge that may end up taking more time and costing dealers efficiency — and thinks more suppliers will add the stabilizers/enhancers at the wholesale warehouse or point of origin.
Henderson points out that Waconia’s equipment is also designed to accommodate the new items. “We need to be diligent in designing the system to accept these products and allow for adaptability of new products in the future,” he notes.
At Ranco Fertiservice, Bruce Hinkeldey has seen a strong increase in the use of stabilizers and efficiency products, both liquid and dry. “Most of our new blenders are being installed with declining weigh impregnation systems to handle the liquid products,” he says. “We utilize our powder feeder to accurately apply the dry stabilizers to the fertilizer. It uses an internal agitator that keeps the powdered product from settling and bridging. The meter screw accurately dispenses the desired amount of stabilizer onto the fertilizer and is regulated by our declining weigh system.”
Meg Yargus, director of national accounts at Yargus, says customers want the most efficient way possible to incorporate liquid and dry additives — and Layco’s new line of Laycote Liquid and Power Coating equipment was designed with this in mind. In fact, Yargus is currently testing its Laycote system at outputs of up to 400 tons per hour of coated material.
For 2015, Ranco has introduced new drag chain meter units that have a wide range of output. The units are able to dispense small amounts of fertilizer into a blend and can greatly increase the output for straight product with the same meter unit. All this can be accomplished while maintaining a high degree of accuracy, Hinkeldey notes.
Challenges For Everyone
Both dealers and blender manufacturers are facing some tough issues in 2015.
“The challenge for dealers still remains to do more with less and in a shorter window of time,” says Yargus’ Anderson.
Henderson has seen that equipment at many facilities these days needs to be upgraded, and dealers face the decision of replacing equipment or waiting to see how the year plays out.
Staffing in the ag industry also creates challenges. There’s the question first of what to invest in at this time, equipment or staff, he suggests. Wait to replace equipment and risk it going down or risk not having enough people to operate units — and lose customers in the process?
Just finding “quality, qualified and retainable” employees is a struggle, points out Anderson, and the dealer is having to become more creative in finding and securing them.
Manufacturers face the same issue. Meg Yargus says Layco’s biggest challenge is finding local talent. The company competes with other manufacturing facilities in a five- to 30-mile radius for employees for both its shop and office.
To meet increased demands on production, Yargus has streamlined its processes through implementing LEAN manufacturing principles, expanding facilities with a 20,000-square foot addition this past fall and continuously improving on employee recruitment and training.
Sackett’s Formisani says the volume of equipment orders being placed over the past few years can be daunting. “With retailers consolidating and getting larger, there is a lot of demand on equipment suppliers,” he says. “I think that there’s enough opportunity that most companies supplying engineering and equipment could get overwhelmed if they’re not careful.
“With all the challenges and opportunities out there for the retailer and grower, it’s really, really important — probably even more than the engineering and equipment we offer — to perform to our commitments and customers’ expectations.”