Fertiliser rush as farmers score good season and lower costs

Fertiliser rush as farmers score good season and lower costs


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Farmers are benefiting from a fall in urea prices of about $100 a tonne in the past year.

Farmers are benefiting from a fall in urea prices of about $100 a tonne in the past year.

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In a rare win for farmers, the promise of much improved seasonal conditions for the crop and the livestock industries is coinciding with falling fertiliser prices.

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In a rare win for farmers, the promise of much improved seasonal conditions for the crop and livestock industries is coinciding with falling fertiliser prices.

Although prone to significant volatility, global values for nitrogen and phosphate products are currently down to levels last seen in 2004 - and look set to keep sliding - according market analysts.

Low oil and gas prices have cut urea production costs and coincided with increasing global supplies of phosphate.

At the same time, widespread rainfall across much of the grainbelt from Western Australia to Central Queensland has sent fertiliser orders through the roof in the past month.

In particular, hot demand for urea products for crop top-dressing last month caught most major distributors with cargoes still to arrive from overseas.

Product is now on the wharves in time to service pent up cropper orders for nitrogen to maximise their yield potential after two months of rainy weather.

Livestock producers are also keen to make the most of bullish beef cattle and sheep and lamb prices, funnelling extra earnings from the past year into pasture improvement.

“We’re seeing people who haven’t put fertiliser on country for 10 years now top-dressing because they’ve finally got money in the bank - and a potential tax problem if they don’t reinvest it,” said southern NSW fertiliser contractor, Paul Wyer at Gunning.

Australian Fertiliser Services Association president and South Australian operator, Craig Swan has been “flat out” running six spreaders on cropping and livestock holdings near Lake Albert, with beef cattle producers currently generating most demand.

“Nationally it’s a big year across the board, although some areas are actually too wet at the moment."

A rush of winter cropping orders for urea kicked off earlier than normal in June after a warm autumn and generally good planting rain, catching many in the industry “on the hop” and causing a temporary July shortage.

Mr Swan said with fresh supplies now flowing, farmers were benefiting from urea prices around $400 a tonne to $420/t at port - down almost $100/t on averages of recent years.

"Although grain prices aren't worth so much right now, farmers are taking advantage of cheaper fertiliser to push crops for extra yield as compensation for low wheat and barley values," he said.     

Di-ammonium and mono-ammonium phosphate (DAP and MAP) lines had also dropped in price about $100/t (ex-port) since last year to around $635/t.

DAP's benchmark Tampa (US) price slumped from about $US460/t last September to about $US400 by Christmas and is now $US340.

International banking group Credit Suisse has tipped phosphate markets to stay low, forecasting 2017 Tampa prices averaging $US340/t and about $US350 in 2018.

"We expect moderate oversupply in the phosphate sector will continue to weigh on DAP," said a Credit Suisse research report.

It noted cheaper supplies available from state-owned Moroccan miner OCP which has exclusive access to about 75 per cent of the world's phosphate reserves, while Russian giant PhosAgro had lifted production 9pc and an earlier dip in Chinese output had rebounded sharply to normal levels in June.

Despite a $US30/t jump in world urea markets between January and April to $US215/t, Gulf prices are currently $US185/t - down from $280 a year ago.

Chinese-owned importer Wengfu Australia’s chief executive officer, Peter Cornish, said demand had subsequently surged so much his company sold almost as much nitrogenous fertiliser in July to east coast retailers as it did in both July and August 2015.

"There's still a long way to go before the winter crop is harvested, but this wet weather is driving a lot of hope and top-dressing activity and that's likely to continue into spring if there's more rain about," he said.

"Importantly, rain has also improved prospects for irrigated summer crops like rice, cotton and corn, and sugarcane looks good, too."

Wengfu, which has recorded $1 billion in sales since launching locally in 2010, imports urea from the Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia and China and phosphate lines from its own Chinese plants.

Mr Cornish said a recently opened a Brisbane depot, which complements port sites in SA, Victoria and NSW, would benefit from Queensland’s seasonal turnaround and reviving cropping and pasture activity, including hay production.

Grass market grows

Elders' national fertiliser supplier manager, Adam Stone, agreed spring was shaping up to be “potentially very busy”, especially where persistent rain had diluted soil nitrogen levels, notably in WA, parts of SA, Victoria and southern NSW.

“In many cases it’s a bit too boggy to drive fertiliser spreaders across paddocks at the moment - including pasture paddocks,” he said.

“It’s also bit early to expect much activity in pasture markets right now, but client sentiment in the livestock industry is pretty positive.”

In southern NSW Mr Wyer’s Fertspread business at Gunning had seen a gradual recovery in pasture top-dressing interest since the end of the Millennium drought in 2011.

“The pasture market had been incredibly sad since the early ’90s wool price crash, but it’s moving along now,” he said.

Not only were good livestock returns encouraging grazing industry spending on soil nutrition to lift farm productivity while prices and seasons were good, but single superphosphate, at about $380/t (delivered farm) had barely fluctuated more than $10/t or $20/t in recent years.

However, Fertspread now had a backlog of southern pasture and cropping jobs because conditions had been so wet “even the trees are falling over”.

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