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Published March 24, 2014, 10:01 AM

Farmers, others fret over fertilizer flow

With the dry fall in 2012, farmers didn’t apply much fall fertilizer, so there was a big rush to apply it in a late, wet spring of 2013.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Brett McIlonie had trouble getting fertilizer deliveries on time in 2013, so he is preparing differently for 2014 — hauling corn to market in March and backhauling fertilizer.

McIlonie, 28, farms near Pingree, N.D., in Stutsman County, with his father, Robert. McIlonie Farms used to raise a wide range of small grains and other crops, but in 2012 narrowed its focus to corn and soybeans. They have good moisture and are getting ready for a good production year.

With the dry fall in 2012, farmers didn’t apply much fall fertilizer, so there was a big rush to apply it in a late, wet spring of 2013. At one point in May, the McIlonies’ planting was delayed more than two days because they couldn’t get fertilizer.

The McIlonies pre-bought their fertilizer right after the first of this year. Prices were down some, but have bounced back. This winter, they repurposed some hopper bottom bins to hold dry fertilizer instead of wheat seed. They also put some other bins into service they’d purchased two years ago from a neighbor.

“We wanted to have the fertilizer on the farm so we know where we’ve got it,” Brett McIlonie says.

The McIlonies decided they’d pull a few loads of corn out of their bins and take them to Country Grain Cooperative Inc., in Eldridge, N.D. They backhauled some urea nitrogen and phosphorus from Wheat Growers (formerly MainLine Agronomy) next door.

“Traditionally, we wait for July for the basis to get better to haul corn,” McIlonie says. “But with the rail shortages, we don’t know if it’ll be better in July.”

He’s not alone in his concerns, but it’s unclear whether everyone can make countermoves.

Many concerns

Richard Downey, a spokesman for Agrium Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, a major fertilizer supplier for North Dakota, tells Agweek the spring is “more challenging than usual” but that his company is trying to adjust.

“There have been delays — not big, but noticeable,” Downey says.

Doug Kuruc, agronomy manager for Dakota Ag Cooperative of Mooreton, N.D., says usually this time of year fertilizer plants are full, topped and ready to go for the spring.

“We’re not having an issue with that right now, but I’ve heard some locations are having problems getting their plants full,” Kuruc says.

One of the problems is the still-frozen Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities. Usually fertilizer warehouses in the Twin Cities area fill up with trains and then barges when they come up the river from Louisiana, Texas and Florida. Those warehouses are emptier than normal and are having trouble getting shuttles of 65 to 85 cars in a train. The facilities aren’t designed to accept the fertilizer via trucks.

Some companies reportedly are encouraging growers to store as much as they can on the farm and are suggesting farmers spread five or 10 days ahead of when they would usually do it. With timely fertilizer availability in question, some are advising customers to side-dress nitrogen later, or top-dress it.

“It’s been done before, but it’s just inefficient. Usually the farmer doesn’t want to go over the fields twice,” Kuruc says.

David Fiebiger, manager of Finley Farmers Grain & Elevator Co., and president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, says most warehouses he knows about are full of fertilizer now, but says it’s the refilling that is causing him concern. He says his facility holds 3,000 tons, but his customers need about 8,000 to 9,000 tons in a typical spring.

“I’ve got to empty and fill that three times and that becomes a challenge even on a good year,” he says. “I don’t think there’s one person out there — a fertilizer retailer, or some kind of retailer — who’s not super nervous about the coming spring,” Fiebiger says.

Carrol Duerr, manager of the Colfax (N.D.) Farmers Elevator, whose company handles anhydrous, ag chemicals and fertilizer products and applicators, says railroad availability is “haunting all of us.” He says the railroad indicates backlogs in service even while limiting the ordering of cars. He thinks facilities in the region have 50 to 60 percent of their inventory capacity full.

“There’ll be a mad dash, and it’ll be tough to find a truck to pull fertilizer when you’re in season,” Duerr says.

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