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A natural gas shortage from the extreme cold weather in February caused fertilizer plants to shut down, preventing farmers from applying fertilizer to their wheat crops. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

The weather the first week of March was a godsend compared to the brutally cold conditions of February—the sun was out and temperatures reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas of the southern Plains, drying out fields so farmers could start the fertilizer application that had been hindered by poor weather.

However, farmers have been met with a new challenge as the natural gas shortage stemming from the historic cold snap last month has forced fertilizer plants to shut down, preventing farmers from obtaining fertilizer for their crops.

Natural gas is used to produce two nitrogen-based fertilizers—ammonia and urea. To accomplish this, natural gas is processed at an upgrading plant with nitrogen. The two main end products, ammonium nitrate and urea, are mixed with other ingredients like phosphorus and potassium to make the synthetic fertilizers used in crop production.

Austin Detrick, agronomy manager for Sooner CO-OP, headquartered in Okeene, Oklahoma, received an email Feb. 26 informing him of the plants’ shutdowns and he learned days later it was due to a natural gas shortage. He said the biggest problem with fertilizer plant shutdowns is that farmers have an extremely short window to apply fertilizer due to February’s weather and this new hiccup will make it impossible for some producers.

“Usually we’ve already started top-dressing by the second week of February, but due to the cold snap we had, it put us that much further behind where everything has to be done by the first couple weeks of March, which doesn’t give us much time with the amount of acres we have to cover,” he said. “It had finally gotten dry and warm enough where we could start spreading fertilizer and we had just got started and all of a sudden the plants shut down.”

Detrick said he has been in his agronomy position for eight years and there have been plant shutdowns from time to time due to low product supply, production line problems or maintenance issues, but he said it has never been shut down during the busiest time of the season.

“It’s the worst timing I could imagine,” he said. “Farmers are in a predicament, because we have a short time period to get this fertilizer on without injuring the crop and we can’t get any product out to the fields.”

Furthermore, the shortage of urea ammonium nitrate, or UAN, has driven the price up by $100 a ton, and the alternative farmers can get their hands on—urea—has also been driven up in price due to the shift in demand.

“I guess they just decided they needed to pad their pockets, because now the price of urea has gone up by $25 to $40 a ton,” Detrick explained. “Urea has been on an upward trend, but this UAN shortage is the only reason for the price hike in urea, I promise you. This natural gas shortage has affected the whole nitrogen fertilizer vine from top to bottom.”

One per customer please

To handle the shortage of fertilizer, Detrick said the only plants with any product available are allocating mostly single-digit loads for cooperatives and other companies to pick up between certain dates. They have basically employed a breadline system of sorts to ration out the limited fertilizer rather than letting one company empty out a plant all at once.

“Sooner Co-op alone has gone through 120,000 gallons of UAN 28 in the last three days and tomorrow (March 4) the tanks will be empty,” Detrick said. “But I see a bigger problem coming. Whenever they do open the plants, how do I choose who gets fertilizer and who doesn’t? Guys are scrambling and trying to figure out what to do and in the end this whole deal is just costing the farmer money. We’re not going to get near the yields, because people are probably rationing their fertilizer trying to spread it out across their acres. It’s going to take time between getting loads and trucks having to wait in line, and we don’t have that time. I like to have all of my herbicide on by March 20 and I don’t see us having all our fertilizer out by then.”

Detrick said the only solution he sees for a natural gas shortage in the future is for more costly farm storage for producers and cooperatives.

“A lot of farmers don’t have enough storage on their farm to hold everything that they need to use in a season,” he said. “If we’re going to continue to have this natural gas problem in the future, the only answer is that everyone is going to have to have bigger storage facilities to hold this product and that would be a very significant cost to the farmer and cooperatives.”

According to Detrick, this fertilizer shortage will mainly affect farmers in Oklahoma, southern Kansas and the Texas Panhandle. However, Detrick said a lot of the wheat in Texas was further along than the wheat crop in the rest of the southern Plains and the harsh freeze in February killed much of Texas’s crop, nullifying much of its need for fertilizer right now. Between the delaying weather conditions in February and the extreme cold due to the Siberian Express, which caused the natural gas shortage, this catastrophe was the perfect storm to throw farmers completely off kilter and struggling to hang on.

“Right now it’s just a waiting game and we’ll just have to see what the outcome of this whole situation is, but by the time the fertilizer plants are back up and going, it could be the end of March and by then farmers won’t need it because it would be too late to apply on the crops.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or lnewlin@hpj.com.

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