Rail fertilizer deliveries ordered and being tracked

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It took the Surface Transportation Board (STB) about a week to react to criticism of the railroads serving the upper Midwest and Plains states that occurred at a hearing in Washington, D.C. Those testifying spoke about poor service being provided ag retailers, co-ops and grain companies. The most critical concern expressed was the slow movement of fertilizer into the hands of ag retailers so they can provide spring fertilizer to farmers.

The STB issued a demand that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Canadian Pacific railroads improve service in fertilizer delivery. The railroads were given until April 17 to provide plans on how they were going to ensure delivery of fertilizer shipments for spring planting of crops in the upper U.S.

To keep track of progress, starting April 25 for the following six weeks, the railroads are being required to provide weekly reports to the STB.  A breakdown of the report expectations are fertilizer delivery per state, number of cars shipped or received that are billed to agricultural destinations and the number of cars placed at such locations.

“This directive is intended to focus each carrier’s attention on those very time-sensitive deliveries while the carriers simultaneously work to address the extensive service and car supply issues for all commodities and to get those commodities moving o the rail network. The board continues to closely monitor rail service metrics data for all movements and consider other efforts to address rail service issues,” a STB statement reportedly noted.

BNSF spokespersons were quoted by national news media in saying more trains and crews are being added to ensure fertilizer deliveries are made to points where farmers need the inputs to fertilize land prior to or at planting. The spokespersons have said the railroad is dedicating special trains to carry only fertilizer and work with customers for faster logistics in loading and unloading to have rail cars moving instead of parked.

BNSF is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, the Warren Buffett company, and is based in Fort Worth, Texas. The biggest contention by agricultural operations is that the railroad has focused on serving oil production from the Bakken field, which would correspond to reports that states such as Iowa have had their ag companies served well in southern Iowa but not northern Iowa. Those being quoted the most about the lack of fertilizer delivery and inability to ship grain to export, grain processors or ethanol producers have been residents of North and South Dakota.

The Bakken oil field is identified as extending from Northeast Montana into Northwest North Dakota and Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces in Canada. Drilling, pumping and shipping of oil have gone wild during the last couple years, especially in North Dakota.   

Lucas Lentsch, South Dakota’s secretary of agriculture, was reported as being pessimistic by USA Today reporter Christopher Doering. He quoted Lentsch as saying, “When you start looking at the massive amounts of inputs that we need for our 2014 spring planting, common sense would tell you that the (time to apply fertilizer) is very short, the train only moves so fast, and there are only so many cars on the tracks at a time.”     

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