Although several fertilizer producers saw lower first-quarter profits due to lower than expected demand, the producers expect fertilizer demand to strengthen throughout 2012.

“Fertilizer buyers continued to move cautiously at the beginning of the year, especially with potash purchases, which impacted our performance during the quarter,” said PotashCorp President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Doyle in a statement. “Although we anticipated that an increase in global fertilizer purchasing would not take hold until the latter half of the first quarter, it took longer than we expected for demand to emerge. While the timing of that change was difficult to predict, the direction was not. We expect the acceleration in potash demand that began at the very end of the quarter will continue, supporting increased volumes through the remainder of the year.”

PotashCorp explained that buyers in all major potash markets were slow to commit to new purchases through most of the first quarter. Shipments from North American producers reflected this pause, declining 48 percent from the record level of last year’s first quarter. While underlying consumption at the farm level was expected to be strong globally, most dealers chose to defer major purchasing decisions rather than build inventory.

In North America, distributors felt little pressure to act quickly in light of elevated producer inventories and greater availability of offshore product. Offshore buyers slowed purchasing in the absence of new Chinese potash supply contracts and the deferral of shipments to India for previously contracted volumes with global suppliers. Although potash prices avoided the pricing volatility of solid phosphate fertilizer and nitrogen products in previous months, they pulled back slightly on limited demand and increased competitive pressures. In this environment, many buyers focused on consuming inventory and awaited greater certainty before committing to new purchases.

The North American solid phosphate market was impacted by similar caution among dealers, as domestic shipments of solid fertilizers declined from first-quarter 2011 levels. Shipments to offshore markets more than offset weak North American demand, largely as a result of strong movement to India, which had been limited in the first quarter of last year due to the early completion of contract deliveries. The slower demand environment that carried over from late 2011 resulted in solid phosphate fertilizer prices lower than in the first quarter of last year.

In nitrogen, purchasing patterns were markedly better than those of the other nutrients. After the general slowdown in fertilizer markets late in 2011, nitrogen buyers moved quickly to place new orders—buoyed by the prospect of large US corn plantings and concerned about product availability given a reduction in North American import volumes and certain unplanned domestic plant outages. These tight supply/demand fundamentals were most pronounced in urea, which pushed prices higher during the quarter.

Although demand early in the season was lackluster, officials at Mosaic Co. said demand was rapidly accelerating. Mosaic explained the force driving the demand for fertilizer is the relatively high corn crop prices.

“We anticipate another year of high farm income in North America—the second highest on record—and strong farm economics around the world,” Mosaic CEO Jim Prokopanko said in a statement.

Part of the reason for the expected high demand is that fertilizer dealers are now beginning to secure product to meet strong demand at the farm level, according to PotashCorp. While the initial focus for many was on acquiring nitrogen to meet their immediate requirements, purchasing of potash and phosphate products accelerated going into the second quarter.

Dealers have largely worked through existing potash inventories and are purchasing additional volumes for immediate needs—an important transition with key growing regions in the midst of their primary planting seasons and farmers motivated to capture the economic incentives of proper fertilization.

PotashCorp explained why it believes fertilizer demand will increase throughout 2012.

“In North America, we anticipate improved demand through the remainder of 2012. This should be evident in the second quarter, although it may not match the level of demand experienced in the same period last year when dealers moved earlier to begin restocking for fall. We believe that dealers will attempt to finish the spring planting season with limited inventory and begin the process of restocking in the third quarter. With the prospect of an early harvest and the expectation of limited dealer inventory, we anticipate a strong second half and total 2012 demand in the range of 8.5-9.0 million tonnes,” the company announced in a statement.