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FARGO -- Many agricultural production regions lay claim to productive agricultural soil, and the Red River Valley is no exception. Selling points are deep black, organic layer on top and clay that pulls water up.

FARGO -- Many agricultural production regions lay claim to productive agricultural soil, and the Red River Valley is no exception. Selling points are deep black, organic layer on top and clay that pulls water up.

"In a dry year, it's wonderful," says Dave Franzen, a North Dakota State University Extension Service soil scientist in Fargo. "It's not a terrific soil if it's wet." There are major drainage issues.

The region was naturally one of the highest in the country in distribution of nitrogen and potassium -- two of the key ingredients for production, but levels of potassium particularly have been depleted by years of cropping. The region also was naturally moderately high in phosphoric acid, or phosphorus.

These three important elements are expressed in fertilizer labels as the "NPK" (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) content as the primary elements in fertilizers. The letter "K" is the chemical symbol for potassium.

These are the "primary nutrients" in fertilizer. Another set of "micronutrients" are added as needed -- either blended with a dry fertilizer, or a liquid, delivered with crop protection fungicide.


Wheat and sugar beets are two of the largest users of nitrogen, per acre. Nitrogen is water-soluble and "moves" with water. Dark leaves on corn and beets are an indicator that the crop has enough nitrogen while it's growing.

Commercial fertilizer is one reason corn yields in the region have increased over the years. North Dakota's average yield in the past five years has ranged from about 105 bushels to 125 bushels per acre and varies with area.

That's a far cry from the 23.6-bushel-per-acre average in the 1940s.

'N-P-K' -- The big three

Some legume crops such as soybeans, can "fix" their own nitrogen, pulling it from the air or atmosphere. Atmospheric nitrogen is transferred through the soil into nodules that grow on roots of these plants.

Most other crops -- especially the "grass" crops of corn, wheat and barley -- require quite a bit of nitrogen, relatively speaking.

Because crops take nitrogen out of the soil every year, farmers need to fertilize.

Nitrogen comes in two basic forms -- anhydrous ammonia and urea. (Farmers in heavy livestock areas reduce their synthetic fertilizer use by applying manure to the land, but with little livestock in the northern Red River Valley, much of it is purchased from fertilizer suppliers.)


Often simply called "anhydrous," anhydrous ammonia nitrogen is a liquid that is applied under pressure from tanks and knifed into the soil. Urea is dry and comes as white granules.

Coke Smith is a crop nutrient salesman in Fargo for West Central Inc., a wholesaler based in Willmar, Minn. Smith handles farmer-owned cooperatives and other accounts in northern Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana.

"Nitrogen is nitrogen," Smith says regarding their effectiveness. "They're comparable as far as how they work."

Nine times out of 10, farmers in the valley will fall-apply anhydrous ammonia, Smith says, simply because of price. Applied in the fall, the anhydrous is relatively stable, unless there is excessive moisture.

When nitrogen is applied in the spring, however, it often is applied in the dry, urea form because there is no waiting period before seeding.

Big players in the industry include Mosaic Co., with Cargill as managing partner; CF Industries, Chicago; Agrium, Denver; Koch Nitrogen, Wichita, Kan.; and Terra Nitrogen, Sioux City, Iowa.

"They're all here," Smith says, noting his company deals with all of those.

Cost is a factor for farmers.


At prices in early summer, anhydrous ammonia figured to be about 65 cents a pound, while comparable units of urea nitrogen were running 79 cents a pound. Those prices climbed over the summer with world demand, Smith says. Today, those figures went to 85 cents a pound and urea had gone to 95 cents.

It costs more to apply the anhydrous, and it has the risk factor of anhydrous accidents, which can cause severe burns for workers.

"Very unforgiving," Smith says.

Dangers associated with anhydrous are shifting the preference more to urea in the region. Regulatory issues are getting stronger and farms are getting larger, so there is more custom application than there used to be.

Most anhydrous ammonia is shipped by rail to terminals and then transferred by truck to most dealerships. Terminals include Beulah, Velva, Grand Forks and Leal in North Dakota, Brandon and Bloom in Manitoba and Glenwood, Minn.

The anhydrous tends to move to retail outlets that store it in "bullets" -- large white tanks of 80 to 100 tons that in turn are used to fill "nurse" tanks -- the kind that farmers use in fields that range from 1 to 2 tons.

Where they get it

The underlying source of fertilizers often is a mystery to city dwellers.


For example, dry urea can come out of terminals Minneapolis and manufacturing plants in Medicine Hat, Alta., or Brandon, Man. The plants use natural gas and make anhydrous and can make either liquid or dry fertilizer. Some is imported through New Orleans, with sources out of Venezuela or Saudi Arabia.

Dry fertilizer of all kinds is increasingly coming to a new generation of large "terminals" in the country, which receive the now 85-car unit trains for fertilizer, for re-loading into trucks that take it to local retailers or farmers.

The most visible example is Alton (N.D.) Agronomy L.L.C. along Interstate 29 just south of Hillsboro, N.D. Aligned with Mosaic for phosphorus and Agrium for nitrogen, the plant holds 20,000 tons of dry fertilizer, and was designed to handle 100,000 tons a year. It probably will handle about 160,000 tons by the end of its fiscal year this year and is in the process of doubling in size. Other large-scale fertilizer terminals are in place or coming to Langdon, Milton (Osnabrook), Kindred, Fairmount and Casselton in North Dakota and Warren in Minnesota. In the west, there's such a plant in Dickinson and Williston.

Robin Stene, general manager for the Halstad, Minn.-based elevator group that owns the Alton terminal, says about one-third of the facilty capacity is for nitrogen and the rest focused more on phosphorus. When expanded, the company will have 10,000 tons of nitrogen storage and 30,000 tons for phosphorus. The capacity will serve enough land to account for nearly 3 million acres.

"Corn has really brought that on in our country," Stene says.

The most prevalent source of phosphorus fertilizer is the so-called "Bone Valley" area in Florida and some out of Idaho and Wyoming. The material is mined from the remains of land animals and marine creatures that inhabited coastal waters eons ago.

Much of the region's potash fertilizer comes from mines in Canada. Some of the product is imported through New Orleans.

Farmers typically soil test to determine how much fertilizer to apply.


Sugar beets use a good amount of nitrogen, but the idea for sugar content is to regulate the application so that the crop runs out of nitrogen before harvest. The pedestrian might notice that the tops of the plants start to look light green, which indicates less nitrogen.

Historically, a farmer might have a rotation of wheat, soybeans and sugar beets and would do the soil test just before the high-value sugar beet crop.

"They'd always test before sugar beets, and then they'd go by a rule-of-thumb for wheat and other crops" on how much of a nutrient is extracted by a particular crop of a particular yield.

"I think they're increasing," Smith says of soil testing. "They're paying a lot more attention to what they're doing now because of the cost per acre."

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