By Rod Nickel
(Reuters) - Some of the world's biggest fertilizer companies are banking that the aftermath of the worst U.S. drought in 56 years will boost sales, as U.S. farmers seek to cash in on high crop prices.
Chicago Board of Trade corn and soybean futures hit all-time high prices this summer, as the drought slashed U.S. harvest estimates to the smallest in 6 and 9 years, respectively.
Those high prices may carry into next spring's North American planting season, depending on how South American crops fare in the meantime, leaving farmers with a strong incentive to maximize crop production by applying yield-boosting fertilizer, the companies said.
"This is a great time to be in the North American fertilizer business," said Stephen Wilson, chief executive of Illinois-based CF Industries Holdings Inc, the world's second biggest producer of nitrogen fertilizer and also a key producer of phosphate, on Tuesday.
Nitrogen, a key nutrient for growing corn and wheat, must be applied every year, because it is not retained in the soil, Wilson said at the Scotiabank Agriculture, Fertilizers and Chemicals conference in Toronto, where several top fertilizer companies discussed the U.S. drought's ramifications.
Potash has more staying power than nitrogen, however, and lower crop production in the Midwest this year could potentially leave enough of the crop nutrient in the soil that farmers can scrimp on applications for next year.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, the biggest global potash producer, expects U.S. farmers will not risk missing a chance to fully cash in on high grain prices.
Instead, they may take notice of reduced U.S. applications of potash over the past decade relative to the amount coming out of the soil through crops, said Wayne Brownlee, chief financial officer at Potash Corp.
"There's not a big cushion there to rely on. We're not seeing particular signs of caution (from farmers)."
The United States, the biggest grower of corn and second-biggest producer of soybeans this year, is a key consumer of potash, along with China, India and Brazil.
Russia's Uralkali OAO, the second-biggest potash producer by capacity, also expects high prices to motivate farmers, but isn't dismissing the possibility that there will be ample potash left in the ground.
"It's difficult to conclude whether that is true or not," Chief Executive Vladislav Baumgertner told the conference. "Scientifically, that is possible of course."
Unlike North American fertilizer companies, Uralkali depends on U.S. sales for only 10 percent of its total sales.
CF Industries is hoping for rain to soften up the parched ground enough to allow farmers to easily apply ammonia nitrogen this autumn, Wilson said. But he sees farmers eventually coming around.
"If for reasons of weather we have a little less movement in the fall, we'll make up for it with ammonia or other nitrogen products in the spring."
But industry analyst David Asbridge, president of NPK Fertilizer Advisory Services, said the companies are too optimistic, because farmers simply won't need to add as much nutrients to the soil as in other years.
He expects U.S. crop usage of potash and phosphate to dip 5-7 percent in 2013, while nitrogen demand eases 1 percent.
"Traditional theory is high corn prices mean more corn acreage, which means more fertilizer demand, which means higher fertilizer prices. I think this is going to be a year where we see that theory is shot," Asbridge said in an interview.
Analyst Robert Winslow, who covers Potash Corp and Agrium Inc for National Bank Financial, sees the drought as positive for fertilizer companies for the next two to three quarters, thanks to high grain prices stimulating sowing of a robust global grain acreage.
But record-high grain prices are likely unsustainable.
"The risk now is to the downside for the (fertilizer) stocks," Winslow said.
What can't be forgotten is that U.S. farmers' bottom line remains attractive, with insurance protecting many drought-affected growers and high grain prices boosting income for others said Mike Wilson, chief executive of Agrium.
The Calgary, Alberta-based company produces potash, nitrogen and phosphate, and also owns the biggest U.S. farm retail supply network.
"The grower is doing very well, cash-wise," Wilson said. "When the grower's making this kind of money ... you want to maximize yields and that's when they come to us."
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Richard Chang)