Waiting on Ag Chemicals

Farmers, Retailers Face Tight Chemical Supply, Shipping Delays

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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A sprayer is loaded with herbicides in central Illinois. Farmers and retailers are running into tight supplies and shipping delays for certain ag chemicals, particularly herbicides, this spring. (DTN photo by Pam Smith)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Some agricultural chemicals such as herbicides and fungicides are in tight supply this spring as shipping backlogs and pandemic-related delays have run headlong into higher demand from increased row-crop acres this year.

Farmers from Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma told DTN in emails they are hearing of higher prices, delays and shortages for herbicides, particularly glyphosate (Roundup) and glufosinate (Liberty), as well as some fungicides.

"We secured most of our needs in advance, but I have had some calls from suppliers the past several weeks basically saying that we should secure our glufosinate because they know they'll run out," said Charles Williams, who farms near Crawfordsville, Arkansas, and was counting on using glufosinate this year on his soybean acres to help control herbicide-resistant weeds.

"There is some discussion of a shortage looming for some popular products like Status (dicamba), however glyphosate is easily the most talked about shortage in eastern Colorado," added Marc Arnusch, who farms near Keenesburg.

Farmers may be forced to use unfamiliar generic herbicides, which can come with mixing and quality issues depending on their age, pest experts told DTN. Others may have to hunt down substitute pesticides, which will require studying efficacy charts.

Those who depend on custom application should be working closely with retailers this year, said Kevin "KJ" Johnson, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association interim president. "The speed at which we can put in this crop if we get a good planting window compresses the spray window, and that gets even more stressful if supplies tighten," Johnson told DTN.


Several factors are working together to create this situation this spring, noted Sam Taylor, a Rabobank analyst focused on the ag inputs sector. First, the ag industry is experiencing the long-expected production backlogs stemming from those abrupt, emergency shutdowns of factories in China at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

"Almost all these ag chemical products have supply chain exposure to China," Taylor explained.

Glufosinate production in particular is heavily concentrated in China. Glyphosate is in slightly better shape, with 33% of global production capacity stationed in North America; but even then, some ingredients may still be sourced overseas, Taylor noted. "Also, a lot of these active ingredients are very concentrated within the supply chain," he added. "So, if you see one or two factories shut down, that can cause level of scarcity very quickly."

The speed with which factories were shuttered to slow the pandemic also means processes within them may not have been wound down properly, and ramping back up takes more time than normal, Taylor said. And given that Chinese chemical production will feed first into the country's own domestic demand, American farmers may find themselves last in line for some ag chemicals, even as commodity prices soar and acres expand this spring.

Add shipping and freight delays into the mix, Taylor said. "The price of shipping containers has gone up fivefold or tenfold, from the Chinese market through the North American market, largely demand driven," he said. "It will take a long time to get from production systems in China into retail channels in North America."

Other inputs are getting caught up in the shipping backlog, as well. In Blair, Nebraska, Ashley Andersen's farm was waiting on soybeans and she was hearing of neighbors struggling to get dry fertilizer shipped in time for the planting season. In Ashville, Ohio, with the planting clock ticking, Keith Peters finally abandoned hope of getting his planter parts ordered by his local dealer. "I had to order off-brand parts to get ready," he said.


So, what does this mean for farmers? Higher prices and spotty shortages in some places, most likely.

Internationally, wholesale prices for glufosinate and glyphosate have increased 50% in the last year, with atrazine rising 40%, Taylor said. Those costs are getting passed on to farmers.

"I think there is some real risk that farmers will incur some higher active ingredient costs on the big names -- glyphosate, glufosinate and atrazine in particular," Taylor warned. "They're getting a double whammy of increased freight and increased active ingredient prices."

Production will increase and backlogs will clear, but farmers might face some local, spotty shortages of needed chemicals throughout the season.

University of Tennessee weed scientist Larry Steckel has already seen that play out among the state's wheat growers, who are often the first to apply fertilizer and herbicide in the spring. Many couldn't find a popular two-ingredient mix of pinoxaden and fenoxaprop-p-ethyl (Axial Bold), Steckel recalled. Some farmers resorted to hunting it down across state lines, but others simply went without it and relied on substitutes, he said.

"A lot of them went to a Plan B, with varying amounts of success," he said. "But mostly they're just living with a few more weeds because of it."

Now, corn and soybean growers in his state are facing shortages of pyroxasulfone-based products such as Zidua and Anthem Maxx, he said. "They are what we use for residual control of grasses and pigweeds," he said. "So, people will need to be looking at premixes out there with s-metolachlor and metribuzin, to fill that residual hole."

Growers facing glyphosate shortages can usually turn to products like clethodim, which appear to be in more plentiful supply, he added. But glufosinate shortages will be harder to address.

Every herbicide-tolerant soybean technology on the market this year -- Enlist E3, RR2 Xtend, Xtendflex, and LibertyLink GT27 -- has tolerance to glufosinate, and the herbicide will be in high demand, Steckel warned.

"People are going to want to use it a lot, and if they didn't get it ahead of time, they might be in trouble," he said.

Agrichemical companies such as BASF are aware of the problem, and trying to accommodate their growers, said BASF spokesperson Odessa Hines.

"While no one specific event has impacted BASF's glufosinate supply, the combination of multiple events and dynamics over the last year has tightened our supply," she told DTN in an email. "All industries, including agriculture, are working through short-term challenges to balance supply with demand."

BASF has turned to air freight for chemical and other input shipments, in an effort to bypass the shipping backlogs, as well as "securing multiple new sources" for some materials, Hines added.

"We are confident that these adjustments will help us meet the needs of our customers who have come to rely on our herbicide solutions for effective weed control," she wrote.

Farmers who find themselves substituting with generic herbicides they aren't familiar with should proceed carefully, Steckel said. "Some of these generic products may be made with different surfactants," he said. "Some may have been sitting around for several years and been frozen and thawed multiple times."

Before spraying with them, do a jar test to see how the different ingredients mix together, he advised. "Your water source and pH can also have a big impact on how well things mix; if you get the mixture acidified early on, that helps a lot." If labels permit, try adding AMS or similar products to accomplish that, he said.

Growers who face fungicide shortages later in the season should use the Crop Protection Network's fungicide efficacy guides to see if they can find alternate options, said University of Kentucky Extension plant pathologist Carl Bradley. "There are fortunately a lot of options usually," he said. "If there is a specific disease they're trying to manage, they can use those guides and see what other options are available." See them here: https://cropprotectionnetwork.org/… and here: https://cropprotectionnetwork.org/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee