Challenging times for fertilizer use in European Union

European Union farmers face an organic fertilizer application quota and tougher restrictions on slurry spreading.  |  Chris McCullough photo

Extra pressure in the form of new fertilizer application regulations are being piled on to European farmers along with a fresh hike in costs of the commodity.

Whether it is organic or artificial, fertilizer is an essential ingredient for European farmers to increase production, but its use is proving costly and a headache for many.

As politicians in Brussels battle to fund and reform the Common Agricultural Policy after 2020, greater emphasis is being placed on greener farming with stricter environmental controls, which include fertilizer use.

The CAP pays money to farmers by means of an annual subsidy and accounts for 40 percent of the European Union’s budget.

However, the payment structure is changing, and farmers will be fined if they go over their organic fertilizer application quota, which is made even more difficult by a slurry spreading ban for three months of the year and increasing wet weather.

Top 10 fertilizer companies in 2017:

  • PotashCorp — Canada
  • Mosaic — headquarters in United States
  • Uralkali — Russia
  • Belaruskali — Belarus
  • Yara — Norway
  • OCP — Morocco
  • CF Industries — United States
  • Israel Chemicals (ICL) — Israel
  • Agrium — Canada
  • K+S — Germany

Each year, livestock farmers in the United Kingdom and Ireland are forbidden to spread slurry from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31 and must have sufficient slurry storage to cover that winter livestock housing period.

Under the Nitrates Directive, the EU imposes a quota level of 70 kilograms of nitrogen per acre per year, but farmers in some EU member states can apply for a derogation, which allows them to use up to 100 kg if written approval is given in advance.

Adhering to these organic fertilizer quota levels is part of the conditions of receiving the EU subsidy, and any breaches could result in heavy fines.

The additional use of artificial fertilizer is essential to ensure both crop and grass yields receive a boost in the main growing seasons.

However, artificial fertilizer prices are historically a huge burden on farm finances, and all indicators are pointing to another hike in prices this coming spring.

According to the latest news from the main fertilizer suppliers, the costs of the main products are likely to rise by US$50 to $90 per tonne compared to last year’s prices.

On an Irish farm, this hike will add $4,359 to $5,085 in costs on a 100 cow dairy unit. The additional costs for tillage farmers could be almost $5.09 per tonne.

John Coughlan, who is a member of the Irish Farmers Association’s inputs project team, said the rise in fertilizer will affect farm incomes across the board.

He said: “Cereal farms have the biggest exposure with fertilizer now accounting for 35 to 40 percent of the variable production costs, while it accounts for approximately 17 percent on dairy farms,” Coughlan said.

“Based on the five-year average yield, rising fertilizer costs will push up the cost of grain production on Index 1 soils by an estimated 3.50 to 4.00 euros per tonne ($4.31 to $4.92).”

Fertilizer prices across the world are rising because of increases in energy costs and fluctuating exchange rates and export-import taxes.

As well, some manufacturers have lowered their production levels to try and match supply to demand more closely, which is also affecting prices.

In Ireland, fertilizer prices are being quoted at 404 per tonne for urea, which is an increase of $61.32 per tonne over last year. Calcium ammonium nitrate is up $55.19 to $554.32 per tonne, 10-10-20 is up $30.66 to 429.23 per tonne and 18-6-12 is $42.92 more expensive at $410.84 per tonne.

However, alternatives to artificial fertilizer are being developed that could slash nitrogen use on farms and reduce costs.

Azotic Technologies in Nottingham, U.K., has come up with a seed dressing that infuses plants with nitrogen-producing bacteria.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have developed N-Fix, which is based on a bacterium that coats seeds such as wheat, corn and rice to create a symbiotic relationship within the plant, enabling it to substitute nitrogen that it normally takes from the soil with nitrogen from the atmosphere.

The bacteria are derived from sugar cane, and using this method will reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers, according to the scientists.

Trials on the N-Fix by independent researchers using Mulika spring wheat showed plants treated with the bacteria and eight kilograms per acre of fertilizer were able to achieve the same yield as a conventional field treated with 40 kg per acre of fertilizer.

Plants treated with the N-Fix bacteria were able to yield more than 0.4 tonnes per acre more than their conventional counterparts.

World population is expected to be nine billion by 2050, which increases the pressure on farmers to grow more food to feed them.

However, as the land battle between growing food and growing lucrative energy crops continues, farmers will have to look at producing higher yields from less acres, which increases the reliance on quality fertilizer to play its part.

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