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Fertilizer Shortages this Spring (06/06/19)

I have visited with many farmers this spring and a common theme is that it was difficult to get N fertilizer at times.

I have visited with many farmers this spring and a common theme is that it was difficult to get N fertilizer at times. Some blame the increased corn acres and the heavy fertilizer rates they require as a cause. I do not think that is the main cause of the problem because NDSU wheat fertilizer recommendations indicate nearly as much fertilizer required (at least N and P) as corn. Great amounts of fertilizer N are custom-applied, applied with farmer-pulled spreaders (I saw many more farmer-spreaders operating this spring than I ever have), and one-pass air seeders. The demand for N fertilizer tons is great when all are operating at the same time.

There are several reasons for fertilizer shortages this spring:  lack of storage; lack of truck drivers; restrictions on how long truck drivers can drive (and their age, which limits how many hours they can effectively operate the rigs); flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi causing barge problems (2 barges of phosphate recently hit a bridge in Arkansas in flooded conditions and sank); distance from terminals in North Dakota; and, definitely the speed at which farmers can plant.

When I started as an agronomist in the retail fertilizer business in central Illinois in 1976, a farmer could plant 40-80 acres of corn a day. By 1980, that had increased to 160-200 acres per day which caused a fertilizer application crisis because we weren’t prepared for it in that shortened spring. Now, one farmer can plant a section per day if everything goes right. Some farmers plant more than that with multiple planting units. A good fertilizer applicator can apply about 1,000 acres per day if properly supplied and distance between farms is small - but that only takes care of about 1.5 farmers per rig. In addition, if the farmer is applying 400 pounds per acre of product, they use up to 256,000 lbs (128 tons) of fertilizer per day. 10 farmers going at once can drain the inventory of a small retail plant in 24 hours. This year, people are fertilizing/planting all crops at once, while in a normal spring, the small grains/canola go in first, then corn, then dry bean/soybean and other are planted. It’s no mystery to me why the shortages - I have lived this before. The important thing was for farmers to keep planting, which they generally did, and catch up on the fertilizer later, which they are.

What to do to avoid a similar problem in the future? If we were in an I-state, the logical steps would be to increase applicator and nurse equipment and increase storage capacity. In the I-states, there are corn, soybeans, and road-side ditches. Little else. Movement from one crop to the other seldom happens. Soybeans after soybeans is a problem due to the range of soybean diseases that lower yields significantly, so it is almost never done. There can be more corn after corn, but usually corn yield is lower with corn after corn and expenses are generally higher, so movement to corn is only slight in a fertilizer sales territory. In North Dakota, many farmers are flexible with their planting intentions and farmers decide to plant wheat, corn, soybean, and any of an additional 18 crops on a whim. How can a retail fertilizer location deal with that? Do they build a bigger storage shed, then eat the inventory if their clients plant 50% more soybean? It’s a very tough economic and practical problem. I believe that a spring like this happens only occasionally and there are ways that farmers can ‘work around’ the problem, yet still have an exceptional crop if the season is favorable. There are probably some small retail fertilizer plants that might consider expansion because shortages have been a perennial problem, but that will not be the norm for most management decisions in the state.


Dave Franzen

Extension Soil Specialist (701-799-2565)

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