The US-based Mosaic Co., one of the world’s
largest fertiliser producers, estimated in its most recent
earnings presentation that global potash shipments
hit an all-time high of 61.1m tonnes in 2014, up 7.4m tonnes
year-on-year (y-o-y), while for fellow fertiliser
shipments reached 64.6m tonnes, rising 500,000 tonnes
One could therefore be forgiven for assuming that, unlike many
speciality industrial minerals, the agrimineral industry is all
about bulk production. In fact, many producers have been
focusing on bringing new fertilisers to market that target
specific areas, notably sulphur deficiencies, which have been
highlighted as a key impediment to achieving higher crop
Russian fertiliser producer EuroChem Group
AG told IM
there are a number of contributing factors behind sulphur
deficiencies in soils, which, according to Netherlands-based
speciality plant nutrition company Canna, can result in
unhealthy, deep yellow-coloured leaves, and stunted growth and
flowering in plants.
H J Baker & Bro Inc.’s president of crop
performance, Don Cherry, told IM that
plant metabolism and physiology depend on sulphur-containing
compounds — not least because two essential amino
acids require sulphur in their structure. He pointed out that
sulphur was the fourth major nutrient required by plants, after
nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
Among the reasons for sulphur deficiencies in soil are improved
environmental standards. Scrubbers, based on minerals such as
limestone and magnesium, now remove many of the gasses and
toxins from industrial flues. As a result, sulphur emissions
have fallen markedly, especially in developed countries.
This move towards cleaner industrial practices has precipitated
a fall in acid rain volumes, which had acted as an unintended
sulphur source in the past.
EuroChem also told IM that
a move away from the application of manure, a decrease
in coal consumption and less use of single superphosphate
(SSP), one of the original formulated fertilisers, have
contributed to sulphur deficiencies in various regions of the
Changing habits in crop production may also be to blame for
sulphur deficiencies: FAOSTAT, the statistics branch of the
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN),
recorded a 178% growth rate in the production of rapeseed
between 1993 and 2013 – a year in which rapeseed
output reached 72.7m tonnes.
Rapeseed has a particularly strong sulphur requirement
— 5-7 tonnes/km2 planted
land — according to K+S Kali GmbH, the German division
of salt and fertiliser producer K+S AG, meaning greater sulphur
application rates are needed for its growth.
JT Starzecki, sales and marketing director at UK-based potash
junior Sirius Minerals Plc,
which is developing the York Potash polyhalite project in
Yorkshire, England, told IM that
farmers may passively allow soils to become deficient in
"Sometimes, they are forced into reducing application rates
owing to the cost of fertilisers, despite being fully aware of
the yield and quality advantages that they can offer," he
Many countries, such as India, run subsidy schemes for specific
crop nutrients, to increase the availability of the material to
small scale farms. This is a point of controversy however, as
the subsidy for urea in India, which accounts for roughly two
thirds of the cost, has led to substantial overuse of urea,
with no significant increases in yield, according to a recent
report on the fertiliser industry by Indian national
newspaper, The Hindu.
The paper reported that an economic survey saw fertiliser
application carried out in proportions of 8.2:3.2:1 for
nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (NPK), instead of the
regionally optimal 4:2:1 ratio.
Starzecki told IM that overzealous
application of nitrogen can even "choke" the uptake of other
Eurochem, alongside H J Baker, India’s Tata
Chemicals and Sirius, are all looking to address the problem of
sulphur deficiency. By significantly increasing crop yields for
farmers, the companies hope to rack up sales of a new set of
sulphur-deficiency correcting fertilisers.
H J Baker introduced its Tiger XP product, a sulphur-bentonite
pastille-form fertiliser, in late January this year. Bentonite,
a swelling clay mineral group most associated with the oilfield
industry, has been used to encapsulate the sulphur content of
When moisture is applied, the proprietary bentonite coating
expands and cracks. Cherry told IM that
this releases the sulphur directly into the soil, where it is
mobilised by Thiobacillus
bacteria, which oxidises sulphur as an energy source for rapid
The bentonite content of the pastille also acts as a dispersing
agent and the fertiliser is made in a ratio of 4:1 for sulphur
and bentonite, Cherry explained.
Towards the end of November last year, Eurochem introduced its
Sulphoammophos fertiliser to the market in southern Russia,
after identifying substantial sulphur deficiency in soils
across the southern oblasts, krais and republics.
Formulated in 20:20:13.5 proportions of nitrogen, phosphate and
sulphur, Eurochem is marketing Sulphoammophos as a product for
food plants grown in large volumes, such as cereals, corn,
sugar beet, rapeseed and sunflowers.
Eurochem say that the fertiliser can increase the average yield
of plants by around 5-7%, compared with other sources of
nitrogen and phosphate.
In Krasnodar Krai, a Black Sea coastal region of Russia located
due east of Crimea, the company is further specialising its
fertiliser offering with a pre-mixed blend of Sulphoammophos
The region, which accounts for 0.4% of the territory of the
Russian Federation, produces 10% of all Russian grain, 30% of
its fruit, 60% of its oilseed, 90% of its rice and 97%
of its wine, according to the Investment and Development
Agency of Latvia (LIAA).
Here, EuroChem has marketed a 41:3:0:3 nitrogen, phosphorus,
potassium and sulphur ratio fertiliser, to cater to the
specific needs of the region’s soils.
The region’s agricultural industry still bears the
scars of the rapid transition away from Soviet collectivist
farming, which resulted in a 50% drop in Russian agricultural
production according to a 1999 paper entitled "Russian Regions
after the Crisis — Coping with Economic Troubles
Governors Reap Political Rewards", published in
US-based Demokratizatsiya: The
Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.
EuroChem told IM that the farming
business is still developing — the intensity of
fertiliser usage has not yet reached the level where individual
farmers are likely to tailor fertiliser blends to their unique
soils and growing conditions, allowing crop nutrient suppliers
to take a broad approach.
India’s agricultural industry is also still very
much in its development stage. Last year, Tata introduced the
Paras granulated fertiliser brand, which contains nitrogen,
phosphorus potassium and sulphur at a ratio of 20:20:13.5.
When Tata released Paras, it said that Indian agriculture was
being negatively affected by "indiscriminate and inadequate"
use of fertilisers, noting that potash and phosphate were the
two nutrient-providing minerals most required by the average
Indian soil type.
Identifying the nutrient content of soils and providing an
integrated solution to maximise traceable yields and profits is
becoming an increasingly important marketing strategy for large
Tata has been educating farmers in India on the yield benefits
of using fertilisers. This is key to successfully marketing
crop nutrients in developing countries, where agriculturalists
are typically less aware of the performance advantages of
In industrial countries such as Russia, different approaches
are required. EuroChem told IM that
it aims to become a technological leader in the agrochemical
market by providing integrated solutions such as bulk soil
sampling and analysis, which is carried out in the Krasnodar
Sirius’s Starzecki told IM that
smaller farms can carry out on-site testing of their soils by
using commercially available test kits, where tablets
containing nutrient-sensitive chemicals can be crushed and
mixed with soil samples to provide colour-based readings of
Gun-like handheld analysers are also available, including those
produced by Olympus Corp. of Japan, which examine the spectral
distribution of the electromagnetic radiation given out by
soils. Peaks at specific wavelengths can indicate the presence
and concentration of individual elements.
Data obtained through this type of analysis will lag the
precision of full, laboratory-based testing, however, which is
better able to identify micronutrient depletion.
By producing new, specifically formulated fertiliser blends and
distributing seeds, pesticides, trace elements and
biostimulants, EuroChem is hoping to market its products beyond
its current markets.
H J Baker’s Cherry
told IM that modern combine
harvesters can monitor the grain yield of crops, and as such,
the grower can see the direct impact application of the
company’s Tiger XP product has on production.
Sirius Minerals has focused heavily on crop science for its
marketing campaign. The company is currently working on
permitting its large York Potash project, which has an
anticipated start-up capacity of 6.5m tpa polyhalite.
Polyhalite has been somewhat overlooked as a source in terms of
the vast volumes of potash produced worldwide. Cleveland
Potash, a company neighbouring Sirius’s property
and owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd (ICL), is currently the only
miner to extract the mineral, producing around 70,000 tpa.
The company announced plans to expand this capacity to 600,000
tpa in September last year.
Named from the Greek poly hals, meaning "many
salts", polyhalite’s idealised formula:
2O (hydrated potassium calcium magnesium sulphate)
indicates its wide-ranging nutrient content.
At 90% polyhalite, Sirius POLY4 branded polyhalite end product
contains 14% potassium oxide (K2O), 19% sulphur (S),
6% magnesium oxide (MgO) and 17% calcium oxide (CaO).
Sirius will produce its POLY4 potash product
(left) from 90% pure polyhalite ore (core material,
right), mined from its project in the North York Moors
National Park, Yorkshire, UK. POLY4 contains
14% K2O, 19% S, 6% MgO
and 17%CaO. Sources: Sirius Minerals
Starzecki told IM that
Sirius believes it can effectively penetrate the fertilisers
market, which is traditionally controlled by potash giants
based in Canada, Belarus, Germany and Russia, because of the
superior performance of its product compared to rival
Sirius intends to supply POLY4 in multiple forms — the
polyhalite ore will be crushed and screened and both a raw and
pelletised product will be sold for use in rotary fertiliser
spreaders, which are attached to the rear of tractors.
While the pelletised product is rapidly absorbed into the soil,
Starzecki told IM that
because it is taken up so efficiently by plants, its
eutrophication potential is low.
Against 12:12:12 nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) blended
muriate of potash (MOP) fertiliser, POLY4 can provide 73%
higher yields in tomato crops, 67% in cabbage, 42% in peanuts
and 30% in corn, according to Sirius.
Results like these, backed up with credible evidence, are
forming an integral part of Sirius’ marketing
Starzecki told IM that
it is about more than just yield: "Our potash mirrors sulphate
of potash (SOP) — there are few chloride ions in
POLY4," he said, explaining that this opens its use to chloride
sensitive crops, which include edible fruits, nuts and wine
grapes. The taste of fruit and nuts can be significantly
impacted by the excessive presence of chlorine, which is far
less of an issue for cereals and grains.
He also said that cell wall strength, nutrient uptake and
utilisation could be improved by consumption of POLY4. This is
partially down to its micronutrient content he explained,
listing boron, molybdenum, manganese, strontium, selenium and
zinc as essential elements required in very small volumes.
Zinc in particular is important, Starzecki said, noting that
plants with a zinc deficiency are unable to uptake other
nutrients as effectively.
"There will always be obstacles with marketing a new product.
But seven-plus years of good crop science and strong marketing
contact, and strong agreements with established distributors
should mean that these are all surmountable," Starzecki
Sirius’ marketing efforts have already shown signs
of paying off: a number of companies have signed binding
take-or-pay offtake agreements totalling 2.05m tonnes POLY4,
expanding to 3m tpa with options. Additional framework sales
agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoU) bring the total
offtake tonnage to 6.9m tpa.
These agreements span Asia, the Americas, Europe and Africa.
Starzecki told IM that
each region that Sirius has signed an offtake agreement for has
soils deficient in one or more polyhalite-contained
"These growing results are not just theory —
they’re physically reproducible too. We are seeing
physical results from some of the leading crop scientists," he
Sirius has developed its POLY4 granular potash
fertiliser (left) with the aid of "leading" crop
scientists. Sources: Sirius Minerals Plc.