Fall fertilizer applications steady despite recent slowdown

Fall fertilizer applications remain on pace despite recent temperature fluctuations. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

An early harvest helped many farmers jump-start their fall fertilizer programs.

And, even though a recent warm-up – that included a record string of 70-plus degree days in some parts of the state — temporarily curbed activity, fertilizer applications remain on pace to meet demand.

“It’s about a tie between ammonia and dry (fertilizer applications),” Graham Utter, FS crop nutrients sales manager, told FarmWeek. “We’re keeping up with some of the challenges we’ve faced.”

Those challenges range from recent temperature fluctuations and issues with a pipeline that feeds the upper Midwest anhydrous ammonia to the closure of the Illinois River through October.

“Harvest was early, and we got some cooler temperatures (in October) and ammonia got started. Then, it warmed up and caused some concerns about microbial activity in the soil and slowed the pace (of applications),” Utter said prior to the arrival of a cold front across the state Tuesday. “In talking with our customers, they’re all using inhibitors to keep the ammonia captured in the soil, and they’re also watching soil temperatures versus air temperatures. There’s still progress happening.”

Anhydrous ammonia supplies remain adequate in Illinois, despite some concerns in Iowa and Minnesota due to pipeline issues, while potash supplies tightened due to a 20% spike in demand compared to last year.

“We’ve had such a big window, the biggest challenge is getting product,” Utter said. “Trains bringing potash out of Canada have had a hard time keeping up.”

Utter believes fertilizer demand strengthened this fall due in part to lower prices. Some farmers are looking to replenish soils after taking off a big crop, while others are rebuilding soil fertility after skipping applications in previous seasons.

Fertilizer demand also increased this fall due to an apparent increase in plantings of winter wheat to the south.

“With more wheat acres to the south, we can see some of that (impact) with some of the nitrogen moved to those acres,” Utter said. “One of the questions we get when there’s a wide-open fall is are we pulling spring tons. I think there may be some of that.”

Fertilizer prices around the state averaged $443 per ton for anhydrous ammonia, $352 for urea, $211 for liquid N spread 28% and $335 for potash, up $8.33, according to the Nov. 5 Illinois Production Cost Report. There’s a wide range in potash prices, though, from $284 to $430 per ton, depending on location.

As for the Illinois River closure, years of preparation neutralized its impact on the fertilizer industry. The waterway reopened to navigation Oct. 29 after a four-month project to upgrade five locks and dams.

“We were concerned about that early on, but everything went about as smoothly as possible,” Utter said. “We really didn’t see any major concerns with product outages. We had contingency plans in place, but luckily, we didn’t have to use any of those.”