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Published May 12, 2014, 09:18 AM

Slow start to planting eases pressure on fertilizer deliveries

A sluggish northern planting pace, as well as prodding by congressional members and regulators, might mean farmers will keep pace on fertilizer deliveries for the 2014 crop. But some think there could still be spot shortages.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO — A sluggish northern planting pace, as well as prodding by congressional members and regulators, might mean farmers will keep pace on fertilizer deliveries for the 2014 crop. But some think there could still be spot shortages.

The federal Surface Transportation Board, in response to concerns by farmers and elevators, directed Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Canadian Pacific railways to step up fertilizer shipments to avoid calamity with spring planting. BNSF agricultural group vice president John Miller in a May 1 podcast said fertilizer supplies had grown, “particularly of urea at fertilizer barns in the upper Midwest…”

The rail companies were also ordered to report on their progress in catching up on delayed deliveries.

Reporting progress

On May 2, BNSF officials said the company is moving forward in its promise to deliver 52 trainloads of fertilizer in a six-week period in BNSF-direct unit train service. BNSF lawyer Jill K. Mulligan told the STB that as of May 1, the company had “originated” 28 of those trains, and 26 had been delivered to their ultimate destination for unloading.

“We also continue to move individual carloads of fertilizer in manifest service, and have handled an additional 10 fertilizer trainloads that we receive in interline service for delivery on BNSF’s network since April 12,” Mulligan said.

The report acknowledged that BNSF fertilizer shipment “velocities” had fallen short of six-week goals starting in the second quarter of 2013 and bottomed out at about one-third less than goal in the fourth quarter of 2013. Fertilizer velocities were about 4 percent above goal since April 1, and about 17 percent ahead of normal in the last week of April, according to a chart in the report.

South Dakota accounted for 12 unit trains of BNSF’s 26 fertilizer trains delivered since April 12, while North Dakota had four, and Minnesota and Montana each had two.

To compare, Charles W. Webster, vice president of operations for CP, reported “train speeds and terminal dwell times have improved 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively,” compared with the previous week. Fertilizer volumes “placed” had doubled, compared with the previous week. Weekly volumes were “in line with three-year averages, even though agricultural anhydrous ammonia volumes being tendered to the railway are low compared to historical levels.”

CP had delivered 109 cars to North Dakota during the week ending April 26, with an average transit of nine days — better than the service standard of 9.7, the report says. It had delivered 33 cars to South Dakota, with a 19.2-day transit, which fell short of an 11.2 standard. Minnesota got 102 fertilizer cars with a 9.1-day transit time, falling short of the 6.5-day standard.

Slow going in fields

It isn’t clear whether the fertilizer deliveries or the weather-related planting delays are the big game-changer. States farther north are farthest behind in planting, according to the weekly National Agricultural Statistics Service report released May 5.

North Dakota had wet, cool conditions and only 1.4 days suitable for fieldwork for the week before the NASS report. Topsoil moisture was 71 percent adequate and 27 percent surplus. Subsoil moisture is 80 percent adequate and 18 percent surplus. Corn planting was a stunning 1 percent planted, compared with a 19 percent five-year average for the date. Planting progress for other crops included: durum — 1 percent; spring wheat — 5 percent; barley — 3 percent; oats — 6 percent; canola — 1 percent; dry edible peas — 3 percent; potatoes — 1 percent. Sugar beets were the farthest behind, with 6 percent planted — ahead of last year’s zero — but well behind the 41 percent five-year average.

South Dakota had 3.2 days for fieldwork, and topsoil moisture 79 percent adequate or better. About 25 percent of the state’s corn crop was planted, ahead of last year’s 6 percent and near the 23 percent average. Spring wheat was 59 percent planted, ahead of last year’s 41 percent but behind the 64 percent average. Other crop planting progress: oats — 67 percent; barley — 44 percent; soybeans — 1 percent; sorghum — 1 percent. All are behind their five-year averages.

Minnesota had less than one day suitable for fieldwork the week before the May 5 report, with widespread precipitation and topsoil moisture 37 percent surplus and 62 percent adequate. Only 8 percent of the corn had been planted, behind the five-year average of 46 percent. Spring wheat was 4 percent planted, 41 percent behind average. Sugar beets were 2 percent complete, 44 percent behind average.

Farms in the southwest part of the state were the only ones making planting progress.

Montana had 4.3 days suitable for fieldwork. The state had 16 percent of its corn planted, compared with a 20 percent average. Other crop planting completions were about average. Sugar beets are the only crop ahead of average, with 65 percent planted, compared with the 51 percent average.

‘Crying concern’

Bill Pool, director of corporate marketing and communications for Aberdeen, S.D.- based Wheat Growers, says his company was in good shape with its fertilizer deliveries this spring, despite the dire concerns raised in Washington.

“We feel very good about our preplanning,” Pool says, noting that the company has operations from Chamberlain and Stickney in South Dakota to Jamestown, N.D. He says the company’s main fertilizer terminals started preparing and making counter-moves on the fertilizer when it started to realize the railroads might be having difficulty meeting logistics on grain last fall. Wheat Growers had put a lot of grain on the ground in piles and bunkers last fall, Pool says, but couldn’t say whether or where it was more than normal.

Pool says the fertilizer plants were filled and replenished, but couldn’t offer details. “We feel really good about where we’ve positioned material,” Pool says, noting there’s been a lot of “malalignment” of the railroads. He says Wheat Growers is a significant player and enjoyed good communication with the railroads.

“I think the railroads, for the most part, have stepped up,” he says.

Mike Clemens, a Wimbledon, N.D., farmer and corn organization leader, says he is glad the congressional offices have kept the heat on the railroads and says it’s not a case of crying wolf.

“It’s called ‘crying concern,’” he says. His supplier in Hannaford, N.D., assured him it would be covering all of its prepaid customers. Anhydrous ammonia nitrogen supplies seem plentiful, but farmers this time of year prefer urea because they can apply it faster.

Clemens cut back corn acres 15 to 18 percent this year. Of those cut-back acres, he applied nitrogen to about 85 percent of the fields last fall. Soybean harvest had been late, so he shifted from ammonia fertilizer to urea and added a protectant for an extra $10 per acre.

Farther south, Bart Schott, a former National Corn Growers Association president and farmer from Kulm, N.D., says his supplier had warned him about possible interruptions in fertilizer availability this spring, but that has changed.

Schott started seeding barley and spreading fertilizer on April 19. He says about 24 percent of the fertilizer was down for corn, which he expected to start planting May 5.

That’s progress

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, says it appeared the railroads had “made some strides” since the STB directive.

“That is progress,” he says, noting he didn’t know how the shipment figures lined up with requests.

Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, says he’s heard no recent problems with fertilizer deliveries.

“We need warm temperatures to get going here,” Lilja says. “We need it to stop raining for a couple of weeks.”

Weather forecasts through much of May were showing significant chances of rain almost every day. Most yield studies show a decline in potential yield after May 15.

“We still have a little bit of time,” Lilja adds. “Most guys can get their crop in in five to seven days.”

But that’s precisely what worries Dave Franzen, a North Dakota State University Extension soils specialist.

Franzen was on field research travels in southeast North Dakota the week of May 6 and notes relatively little fieldwork and fertilizer spreading has been done. He says the frost line has just recently dropped to 2 feet below the surface in some of his test plots. Franzen says if the weather clears up and farmers put their crops in the ground in a hurry, farmers still could see spot shortages of nitrogen.

“It’s been slow,” Franzen says. “I’ve been continuing encouraging people to plant first and fertilize later if they have to. You can always apply the fertilizer later.”

Long-term, Lilja notes that two large fertilizer manufacturing plants are under development in Spiritwood, N.D., by CHS Inc., and in Grand Forks, N.D. Lilja says the corn growers group “certainly views either project as being very valuable to the northern region,” adding that “a lot of the cost of fertilizer is the transportation cost. When you’re importing your fertilizer from the Middle East or China, that’s a lot of added cost.”

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