Growth markets for new fertilisers

By James Sean Dickson
Published: Friday, 27 February 2015

As a raft of new sulphur deficiency-addressing fertilisers hit the international market, James Sean Dickson, Reporter, examines the reasons for their emergence, and the future of the specialist crop nutrient industry.

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 mineral phosphate, shipments reached 64.6m tonnes, rising 500,000 tonnes y-o-y.

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 yields.

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 world.

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 sulphur.

"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 said.

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 nutrients.


POLY4: A neat package of essential nutrients.
Sirius Minerals. 

Growing opportunity

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 the fertiliser.

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 plant uptake.

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 and urea.

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.

Industry-integrated marketing

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 fertiliser companies.

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 mineral application.

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 region.

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 fertiliser levels.

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: K2Ca2Mg(SO4)4 • 2H2O (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).

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 fertilisers.

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 strategy.

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 said.

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 element.

"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 said.