Urea production facility benefiting farmers in North Dakota and beyond

John Weinand says he is happy a urea production facility has been built essentially right in his backyard, because it will help stabilize the price of urea. In the past, pricing tended to be quite volatile.

The urea production facility at Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant just wrapped up its first-ever spring season after going commercial just a few short months before spring planting began. 

While there were some bumps in the road, nearly 100,000 tons of urea were sold, loaded, and shipped across North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and even into Canada during a time when fertilizer was in extremely short supply. 

“Things were tough this spring, because of a late start due to the weather,” says North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “It was a real challenge to get fertilizer to producers so they could get it on their fields in time. Some even had to resort to top- or side-dressing their crops (putting fertilizer on top or beside the crops after they’ve emerged). I think of how tight supply was, and it makes me wonder how bad it would have been if the urea plant had not been built. That plant is vitally important to farmers in North Dakota and beyond. It is huge for the state, bar none.”

A farmer’s perspective
John Weinand is a member of Basin Electric member Roughrider Electric Cooperative and immediate past president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. He operates a 6,500-acre diversified family farm six miles southeast of Hazen and has been using urea on his crops since he started farming more than 30 years ago. 

He uses urea on several crops, including corn, sunflowers, and his award-winning winter wheat, which placed fourth in the 2016 national winter wheat yield competition. His yield was 85.66 bushels per acre –119 percent above the county average.

Weinand says he uses urea because of its safety advantages and because he can buy it coated with a polymer substance so he can apply it in the fall when planting his winter wheat, and the nitrogen won’t be released until the temperature and moisture levels reach a certain point, which saves him a lot of time. This is an option that isn’t available with liquid fertilizers.

Weinand says he is happy a urea production facility has been built essentially right in his backyard, because it will help stabilize the price of urea. In the past, pricing tended to be quite volatile. It will also likely help with transportation: Prior to the plant being built, urea had to be either imported through the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area by barge or shipped from a facility in the lower Midwest.  

Goehring says more farmers will likely increase their use of urea if the price and shipping costs remain steady, himself included. Goehring is a third-generation farmer and operates a 2,300-acre, no-till farm near Menoken in south central North Dakota.

“I’m using more urea on my farm than I’ve ever used in the past, and it makes me feel great that what I’m putting on my fields very likely could have come from right here in North Dakota,” he says. 

“Basin Electric has always had its roots in agriculture,” says Basin Electric CEO and General Manager Paul Sukut. “From the very beginning, it was farmers and ranchers who pulled together to form the electric cooperatives. The move to diversify and expand our fertilizer product offerings is another way we can provide value back to our membership.”

Beyond North Dakota
With that in mind, Dakota Gasification Company teamed up with OCI N.V., a global producer and distributor of natural gas-based fertilizers, to form N-7, LLC, a joint marketing entity designed to market and distribute fertilizers and diesel exhaust fluid across North America. This venture will benefit both companies by increasing their accessibility to product, optimizing transportation, and broadening their customer bases.

“N-7 began operations on July 2, and it got off to a strong start,” says Ken Rutter, director of portfolio management for Dakota Gas and Basin Electric. “Through N-7, we will be able to better serve North Dakota farmers and increase our customer base, serving as a dependable source of fertilizer.” 

As of early July, N-7 had already committed to more than 80,000 tons of urea from the Synfuels Plant for July and August, which was more than the plant is able to produce. 
“But that’s a good thing, because some of those sales could roll into September,” Rutter says. 

During the company’s second board meeting, the board decided to give N-7 the authority to lease storage for urea at Dakota Gas in the event that sales are weaker than expected in November and December, urea’s off-season. 

“That way, inventory can be stored for the spring season when the farmers really need it and when it can capture higher values,” Rutter says. 

“The board also went over N-7’s ‘criteria for success,’ which is the value we’re expecting it to provide Dakota Gas. We outlined several key items we want N-7 to achieve over the coming year. By achieving these goals, N-7 can be a benefit to both Dakota Gas and the farmers across the Midwest.” 

Benefits of urea

Farmers who use urea say they do so for many reasons. Increased safety when transporting and handling are at the top of the list. Other benefits include:

  • Blending possibilities. Because urea is a granular fertilizer, farmers are able to blend it with other dry fertilizers to create a recipe designed specifically for their individual soil or crop.
  • No specialized application equipment. Urea can be applied using a spreader, conveyor, and an auger, unlike liquid fertilizers that require a tank and equipment that needs to be regularly updated because of safety guidelines. 
  • Less soil disturbance. Because more and more farmers are implementing conservation tillage systems, they are moving toward dry fertilizers like urea because it is applied on top of the soil, unlike certain liquid fertilizers that are applied by cutting into the soil and spraying it into the cut.  
  • Doesn’t immediately use the moisture in the soil. Anhydrous ammonia, one of the most widely used fertilizers, is attracted to moisture and will find it at the nearest source. So, when applying it in the field, it will find the moisture in the soil and immediately use it. Urea does not do that, however, rain is needed to make the nitrogen readily available. 

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