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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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:
• 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
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’
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
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.