Phosphate goes short on Prairies

Prolonged issue | Some farmers have been looking to secure supply since mid-April

Some of this year’s crop is going in the ground without the assistance of a key nutrient.

Farmers across the Prairies are complaining about a phosphate shortage.

“We can’t get any,” said Joel Tuininga, a grower from Neerlandia, Alta.

The local co-op was allocated eight Super-B trailers of phosphate last week, which amounts to 352 tonnes.

“We don’t have enough for one day,” he said.

Tuininga pre-bought and took home his phosphate this year, so he has the 90 tonnes required for his 3,000 acre farm. However, other farmers in the area are not as fortunate.

They have been told supplies will be available in June, but seeding was in full swing in late May.

“If phosphorus is coming in June, that’s too late. Nobody is going to put it down. It has got to be in the ground. You can’t float it on top like other products,” said Tuininga.

Humphrey Banack, director of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, spoke with a couple of retailers who confirmed the shortage is widespread.

“They both said that phosphate is virtually not accessible for us,” he said.

“If I were to take on 500 acres more land they wouldn’t be able to provide me with the phosphate for it.”

Agrium spokesperson Richard Downey said there have been production problems at the company’s Redwater plant but nothing that would cause the kind of shortage farmers are complaining about.

The company was forced to switch from using Ontario phosphate rock to offshore product because the mine in Ontario closed.

“There were some slight differences in the grade that we were trying out and it caused a few challenges on the processing, but it was pretty minor overall in terms of the impact on production,” he said.

Production at the Redwater facility was 30,000 tonnes below expectations but still above last year’s levels.

“That is a drop in the bucket in terms of total use in Western Canada,” said Downey.

Supplies have been tight in the company’s retail network, but there are no big shortages at any of the outlets. Downey suspects the tightness is due to poor rail service for imported product.

Mark Cutts, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said retailers with good storage who had the foresight to bring in enough product earlier in the year are in good shape but those with limited storage are scrambling.

“If they’re looking to get some loads here to finish off the season, it’s questionable as to whether they’re going to get it,” he said.

Shannon Friesen, a cropping specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said there is talk of shortages in Saskatchewan.

“We’ve heard a few guys mention it, particularly in the southwest,” she said. “Our reporters have been talking about it since mid-April, so it’s certainly not a short-blip-and-it’s-over kind of thing. It’s a prolonged issue in some areas.”

Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said the initial concern this year was for a nitrogen shortage.

“We were advised a few weeks ago by dealers that it looks like we have enough nitrogen to meet our commitments, but it’s going to be phosphate that’s in tight supply,” he said.

Chorney believes wholesale warehouses couldn’t get enough product because of the winter rail transportation crisis.

“Normally, they would have these warehouses full before the season started. I was being told that they were basically empty.”

He believes heavy rainfall in parts of Manitoba that has kept farmers off their fields is helping out with the phosphate shortage.

“It’s giving the dealer network a chance to recover,” said Chorney.

Phosphate is the second most popular fertilizer in Western Canada next to nitrogen.

“It is one that is used essentially on all seeded fields,” said Cutts.

“It does give a little bit of a pop-up effect to that early germination.”

Any time a crop is missing a key nutrient it can limit yield, but it will vary from farm to farm, depending on how much phosphate was already in the soil.

The retailers who Banack spoke to said logistics are changing in the fertilizer business.

“It’s coming to the point in time where you have to make sure you pre-book your stuff,” he said.

“We encourage producers to risk manage and lock in their prices on fertilizer as early as they can so they can manage their risk rather than leaving this open to the very end and hoping they can get product and hoping the price will be where they want it to be.”

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