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Fertilizer supplies tight

Rail problems this winter and two nitrogen plant breakdowns tightened N and P supplies

Tight fertilizer supplies might put the kibosh on some farmers’ hopes for seeding early this year, industry officials say.

Poor rail service this winter and two nitrogen plan breakdowns have combined to tighten fertilizer supplies to local retailers.

“Essentially we are behind where we’d like to be at this time of the year,” said Clyde Graham, senior vice-president strategies and alliances with the Canadian Fertilizer Institute. “I’m assuming our industry is doing everything it can to meet the needs of our farmer-customers.”

Product will be trickling as capacity allows, but there could be localized shortages if everyone wants it at once.

“If seeding does drag out to the end of May or into June there should be product arriving all the way through the season,” Steve Biggar, Richardson International’s assistant vice-president of fertilizer and energy products said in an interview April 25. “I think the later the season goes the greater the likelihood is we’ll have enough fertilizer. If we end up mostly finished seeding by May long weekend then there just isn’t going to be enough fertilizer in place to meet all the demand.”

Fertilizer companies had the same problems as grain companies with rail service over the winter. Farmers were less likely to buy in advance because they weren’t moving their grain, which affected their cash flow as well as bin space.

Both Graham and Biggar said farmers should continue to speak with their local fertilizers to stay up to date on the supply situation.

Breakdowns

Agrium’s nitrogen plant at Carseland, Alta, is broken down, taking about 120,000 tonnes of nitrogen off the market. That represents about three per cent of Western Canada’s nitrogen use, said Richard Downey, Agrium’s vice-president of investor and corporate relations.

U.S. fertilizer company CF Industries Holdings Inc. said April 21 it shut down its entire nitrogen complex at Woodward, Oklahoma due to a problem in one of the boilers. It will take about six to eight weeks to resume normal operations.

The plant is a long way from Canada so the impact here won’t be significant, but it will add to the tightness in supply, Downey said.

Last year’s record crop means most farmers will need to apply more fertilizer than normal, said John Heard, a soil fertility specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

“Nitrogen levels in the soil are down 10 to 20 pounds an acre on average,” he said. “So the fertilizer needs are… higher than last year.”

Phosphorus, half of which is imported from the United States, is also in short supply, Biggar said.

Nitrogen can be applied after seeding or even when the crop is still small and even later with longer-maturing crops including corn, sunflowers and potatoes, Heard said. However, timely rains are needed to move the nutrient to the root zone.

Phosphorus short

But since phosphorus is much less mobile in the soil, it must be banded ahead of planting or applied with the seed.

“Products like potash and ammonium sulphate look like they will be in good supply,” Biggar said.

Heard isn’t sure how many Manitoba farmers applied fertilizer last fall. That’s an acceptable practice when applied to cool, well-drained soils, he said.

Farmers in central and eastern Manitoba had more time for fall applications than farmers in the western areas where harvest was delayed, Heard said.

“I’ve always been amazed with how well the fertilizer industry’s infrastructure does work,” he said. “It truly is a ‘just-in-time’ system and that just-in-time system has actually worked pretty good the last while.”

More urea will likely be imported from the U.S. than usual because of the rail and plant problems, Biggar said.

“We have product coming from various river houses on the Mississippi and a lot of those houses are just having trouble getting rail cars to ship up this direction,” he said.

Rail car shortage

Last week the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates American railways, ordered CP Rail and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, to come up with a plan for moving more fertilizer in the U.S. Biggar said that will likely help get more fertilizer to Canada.

“If more cars are going into fertilizer we may see more coming up to Canada as well,” he said. “I don’t think Canadian suppliers will short this market to serve the U.S. market first.”

Concerns about tight spring fertilizer supplies, especially regionally, aren’t new, in part because of logistical issues around having enough trucks and drivers to physically move product to keep up with the rush. Several industry observers noted, however, that fertilizer retailers are purchasing less fertilizer without having a firm sale for it. In 2008-09 many retailers were stuck with surplus supplies and suffered losses when fertilizer prices dropped later in the year.

“It’s certainly stressful for farmers,” said one official. “Some may feel they’ve been caught, but the only thing worse than expensive nitrogen fertilizer is not having any fertilizer.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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