FARMERS are right now looking at nitrogen costs that are triple what they were a year ago, as a world gas shortage persists and fertiliser manufacture slumps.

As The Scottish Farmer went to press this week, it was being reported from multiple sources that the quoted price for a tonne of fertiliser had crept up to and well beyond £500, while supply remained severely restricted.

Speaking from the Agricultural Industries Confederation, Joe Gilbertson, its sector head for fertiliser, stressed that 'everything in the bag' of nitrogen fertiliser came from natural gas, whether that was the hydrogen that bonded with atmospheric nitrogen to make the ammonia, or the energy that was used to power the process.

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"This time last year the gas price was $5 a unit, and now it is $25 a unit," said Mr Gilbertson. "Essentially, what manufacturers pay for gas has a direct relation to what farmers pay for fertiliser. In a worldwide market, with some very aggressive users of fertiliser, the UK represents just 1% of the market."

Mr Gilbertson noted that China had stopped exporting fertiliser at the moment, while large users, like India and Brazil, were using their 'deep pockets' to secure supply.

His advice to farmers was to 'talk to suppliers, talk to them early, understand what you want to do, and talk to your agronomist."

Willie Thomson, chairman of the NFUS cereals committee, confirmed that last year he bought in fertiliser at £190, and had most recently been quoted £470, only to have had that offer withdrawn. "I've been told the next quote will start with a 'five'," he told TSF.

"A lot of wheat is already in the ground and farmers are committed to growing that crop. But they may have to look at application rates that are not the optimum. As for spring, folk may not have made their plans yet, but might consider beans as they don't need nitrogen.

"Long term, their could be a shift to spring wheat because it needs less too, " he speculated. "At least wheat values going forward are quite strong."

Former record breaking wheat grower, Gordon Rennie, spelled out a steep upward curve in fertiliser costs that will see per hectare cost leap from £96 to £244 in four months. He reckoned that the restart of production at CF Fertilisers might bring some stability to the market, while the value of organic manures such as hen pen and farmyard manure could not be underestimated.

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"At Cereals 21, Patrick Stephenson and I agreed that on winter wheat, the first 180 kg was essential, thereafter the law of diminishing returns sets in," he added, while warning that the fertiliser vacuum might see some 'snake oils' hit the market with fabulous claims that you can reduce N dramatically and not lower yield.

The UK is not self-sufficient in fertiliser. Around 40% of the UK market is supplied by one primary manufacturer, and the rest of the UK’s fertiliser relies on imports.