Challenges shipping fertilizer and other products via barge this spring due to flooding and river closures undoubtedly caused a lot of headaches in the ag input business.

But, on the bright side, Mother Nature essentially provided a practice run for next year’s planned closure of the Illinois River (July 1 to Sept. 30, 2020 for maintenance work on six locks). And suppliers passed the unplanned test.

“This year we got no warning at all. We couldn’t get product down the Ohio River (which closed for four weeks), the Mississippi was closed all spring (before reopening July 1) and we lost (navigation) on the Illinois for two months,” said Joe Kilgus, GROWMARK director of sales and marketing crop nutrients. “But I’m not aware of anybody this spring that didn’t get fertilizer,” he noted. “It was a challenge. But we got it done.”

GROWMARK overcame the river transportation issues this season by relying more on trains and trucks. The cooperative railed fertilizer from Cincinnati to Wisconsin and trucked it from Cincinnati to Michigan.

But barge transportation remains the preferred method to ship bulk inputs and commodities due to efficiency. One barge tow moves 26,000 tons of fertilizer, which would take 200 railcars or 1,050 trucks to move the same amount.

“We move a lot of fertilizer on the river system,” Kilgus said.

In fact, during the four-month span of lock and dam closures, the Starved Rock lock will remain closed an extra month until Oct. 30 for extensive repairs. The Illinois Waterway System averages 13.3 million tons of cargo that pass through the lock system. It would take an additional 533,000 trucks or 121,000 rail cars to transport that same amount.

GROWMARK put a multitiered plan in place to handle next year’s river closure, Kilgus said at a meeting hosted by Fulton, Mason and Schuyler Farm Bureaus at Dickson Mounds Museum.

“We’ve worked with producers on plans to get all terminals full prior to the river closure and we’re working on alternate transportation,” Kilgus said.

GROWMARK can store at least half of fertilizer needs for a season in current terminals and looks to also use temporary storage for fertilizer. Kilgus believes the timing of the lock and dam repairs shouldn’t affect the anhydrous ammonia or liquid nitrogen seasons. The biggest effect could be on phosphorus and potassium movements.

“If everything is on schedule (with the lock and dam repairs), I think it will have a minimal impact on (fertilizer) supply,” Kilgus said. “The cost be could be anywhere from zero to 50 cents per acre (depending on the need for alternate, more expensive transportation).”

Additional meetings dates are below:

  • July 25, 8:30 a.m.; Birkey’s Farm Store, Henry; hosted by Marshall-Putnam Farm Bureau.
  • July 26, 10 a.m.; 104 Grill, Meredosia; hosted by Cass-Morgan Farm Bureau.
  • Aug. 5, 10 a.m.; GRAINCO FS Agronomy, Morris; hosted by Grundy-Kendall Farm Bureau.
  • Aug. 6, 10 a.m.; Peoria County Farm Bureau, Peoria; hosted by Peoria County Farm Bureau.

Pre-registration with the hosting county Farm Bureau is encouraged.