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We’re always moving

Fertilizer is on the move all year round. This report has discussed fertilizer production and application on the farm. But there is another necessary component: getting the fertilizer from the production facility to the retail outlet and finally to the farm. Transportation is the key ingredient in getting fertilizer where it needs to be at the right time. The fertilizer industry distribution system is built to serve the farmer, so that the right amount of the right fertilizer product is safely delivered when the farmer needs it. 

Fertilizer production facilities operate 24–7, 365 days a year. These facilities have limited storage, and the end product must be transported to warehouses and terminals strategically located, like pieces on a chess board, throughout the nation. During the spring and fall, fertilizer inventories at warehouses and terminals are depleted as product is bought by farmers and transported to the farm. In the summer and winter, fertilizer inventories at warehouses and terminals are replenished as the industry prepares for the next spring planting or fall harvest season.

To accomplish the tall order of moving fertilizer throughout the year, the industry relies on many modes of transport, including rail, truck, waterways, and pipeline. No one mode is more important than the other. But there are some trends that stand out when we look at the data collected from the companies who participated in this report.

  • When viewed by distances traveled, more than half of all fertilizer travels by rail. 
  • Rail and barge movements are virtually equal each quarter of the year.
  • Trucks are used multiple times throughout distribution and are key to the last legs of the journey to the farm.
Transpo Truck

Industry Spotlight: CHS

As a cooperative, CHS exists to improve access to and delivery of the products its cooperative owners need for their retail and farming operations. As domestic nitrogen production increased and fertilizer market dynamics changed, CHS recognized the opportunity to develop a trucking program to create new efficiencies. While the company continues to ship fertilizer via rail and barge, it intentionally moved more volume to trucks with a goal to maximize company-wide back-haul opportunities for grain or other products. 

With increased focus on back-haul opportunities, more than 40 percent of fertilizer shipments now include two-way freight. This strategy allows CHS to offer a steady supply of fertilizer to cooperative customers via trucks and creates efficiencies in moving multiple products. Shipping both ways reduces overall freight costs and helps the company more competitively serve its fertilizer and grain customers versus contracting multiple one-way loads. Because CHS also uses outside trucking services, many local trucking companies and/or individual truckers have seen a positive financial impact from the increased volume.

“With tight margins throughout the supply chain, we are pleased to have found a way to more competitively serve our retail and grower customers and owners,” said Michael Johnson, Director of Strategic Marketing. “Moving tons as efficiently as possible improves both economic and environmental aspects of fertilizer transportation.”

Once produced, fertilizer might be transported via truck many times, including to the rail or barge loading facility, trucked between the barge and rail trips, trucked from the barge and rail facility to the retailer, and eventually trucked to the farmer. Truck shipments increase in the spring and fall when farmers are applying fertilizer on their fields.

Rail plays a crucial role in the distribution of fertilizer across the United States. It is one of the safest and most efficient ways to transport fertilizer. The fertilizer industry continues to invest in new railcars that are more sustainable and move product safely across the country. Moving fertilizer by rail instead of truck reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent.5 One rail car carries the same amount of fertilizer as four truck loads.

In 2016, participating companies reported shipping 19,627,038 tons of fertilizer via rail. It would take 798,679 trucks to move this same amount of fertilizer every year.

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Industry Spotlight: Agrium

After incidents in 2004 and 2005, the fertilizer industry, railroads, and regulators recognized the need to improve tank car safety. Agrium, a leading producer and retail supplier of fertilizer products, saw an opportunity to advance their leadership in the industry by incorporating design concepts from recent tank car research into a new car produced for anhydrous ammonia transportation. The company set out on an ambitious goal to put 600 new tank cars that feature industry-leading safety features into their fleet. 

Working with Procor and Union Tank Car Company, Agrium arrived at an enhanced tank car design with improved puncture resistance and rollover protection. Both features play important roles in product containment in the event of an incident, such as a derailment. An industry first, stainless steel is used for the protective jacket and the head shields of the car. In comparison to conventionally used carbon steel, stainless is a tougher material that has the ability to bend more before it breaks. 

Agrium seeks to be a true safety leader in the industry. Agrium fertilizer is distributed in these railcars from production plants to farming communities throughout North America. In the event of an incident, the goal of the new cars is to reduce the potential for release. 

“We are proud to have been able to make a physical reality of the safety research and engineering conducted over many years and by many participants,” said Scott Thomson, P.Eng, Lease Fleet Supervisor. “Agrium, Procor, and Union Tank Car Company are advancing the tank car industry with this car.”

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