Agri-retailers share their strategies to break down fertilizer bottlenecks

Some systems are getting faster: computers run programs with lightning speed, emails and messages are replied to in seconds with the tap of a finger. But in the physical realm of the yard, some things will always be the same: a truck arrives awaiting an order, and fulfilling this takes a period of time that just isn’t negotiable.

One aspect that is controllable, however, is how we proactively organize and anticipate the demand for fertilizer orders. Agri-retailers are finding smart ways to make lineups flow as efficiently as possible.

Throughput Problems

“Probably one of our biggest challenges is scheduling fertilizer pickups,” says Mike Gaumont, manager of ag operations for McEwens Fuels & Fertilizers. “Everything is done in a very short window, and seeding season is definitely the worst for us.”

Martin Kiefer, sales manager at Agrico Canada, says that delays often just come down to size. “Customers are now coming in with new, higher-capacity equipment that can carry eight tonnes, whereas a few years ago they might have carried one tonne.” he says. The additional time it takes to fill the larger trucks can cause significant delays.

Kiefer also cites a shift in the highly specific and specialized nature of agronomy, resulting in more complex fertilizer orders. “Many producers are now using highly-specialized blends,” he says. “The retailers have to create each order, and that takes time.”

Scheduling and Foresight

While it’s entirely unrealistic to expect a farming season to follow a pre-planned schedule, paying close attention can help formulate a game plan. Weather conditions dictate a producer’s schedule most of the time, which in turn results in scheduling problems when it comes to getting what they need as soon as possible from retailers.

Kiefer sees an opportunity to be proactive as soon as weather makes itself known. “If it’s raining today, you know a producer will want to come and see you at 7 a.m. tomorrow,” he says. “Pick up the phone and call them to schedule a pickup time. Or better yet, arrange to have a truck drop off an amount of product.”

As the industry continues look for efficiencies, other ways to pre-plan have begun to reveal themselves. Many producers with larger operations now work with agronomists and retailers to figure out their fertilizer needs over the winter, pre-ordering blends and in some cases storing them.

“Probably about 20 per cent of our business in the last five years has switched to winter blending, which definitely alleviates some of the strain of demand in the spring,” says Gaumont. “It’s not something every customer is able to do, but as they grow, they realize some of the constraints with pulling all (of their fertilizer) in one short window.”

Supply Strategies

The growth of customer operations and increasingly specialized product requirements have made it necessary for many retailers to evolve the way their plants are run. “Our hours of service have definitely increased,” says Gaumont. “We run a blender from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. We’re basically on whatever schedule our customer is on, and there’s about 10 days at peak season where our plants are basically running 24 hours.”

It’s not just the retailers’ operations that experience backups which slow down the supply chain. “It happens at the supplier level too, and that affects the retailer level,” says Kiefer. “The supply chain is all connected.”

Retails with more than one location in a given region are lucky – they can re-distribute materials where needed to avoid shortages that cause delays. But Gaumont suggests that independents can embrace collaboration strategies to help each other out – even within a competitive market.

“On the wholesale side, I do work with competitors sometimes,” he says. “We definitely try to help each other out. At the end of the day, there’s an attitude where everyone wants to get the job done for the farming community. Nobody wants to see their neighbour not get his crop in.”

Communication is the Key

Regardless of where a bottleneck occurs, communication is key to mitigating the situation and keeping customers happy, or at least understanding. “There’s been times that I’m waiting for a certain product for an hour or two. Communication is what gets us through that – we just get on the phone with everybody to let them know,” says Gaumont. “Nine times out of ten, we avoid anyone showing up with expectations that they need something right now.”

Keeping in touch has become an increasingly crucial aspect of the supply industry, and retailers are taking advantage of the new efficiencies technology can offer. Gaumont explains that McEwens has started to rely more heavily on mobile technology to keep track of customers’ needs. “With our anhydrous ammonia business, a lot of it is scheduling,” he says. “About 25 per cent of our customers schedule their delivery times by texting now – we’ve definitely seen a shift in that direction.

Communicating via text may strike some as too casual an approach, but it does come with advantages. Having a data trail can help ensure that pickups aren’t forgotten. Gaumont has also found that younger farmers have taken to the ease and speed texting affords their operation.

“I have one young customer whom I hardly talk to anymore,” he says. “He will text me all the time and say ‘I’ll need 12 tonnes for this field. I’ll need it between 2 and 4 p.m.’ It works great for us; I just put it on the scheduling board and it’s all ready to go.”

Regardless of how you keep in touch, Kiefer insists that the key is to remain direct about a given situation. “It’s important to be upfront and honest about what you’re able to do,” he says. “If a customer calls you with a need, be honest about when you’ll be able to fulfill it. It may not be exactly what they want to hear, but your customers will be happier in the long run.”

While nothing a retailer does can entirely prevent occasional backups in the yard, there’s a saving grace in the community-mindedness of the agriculture industry.

“We deal with the best group of customers you could ask for: farmers,” says Gaumont. “If you grew up on a farm, you know that things are going to break, and delays are going to happen. There’s a lot of understanding that goes both ways – on the supplier side, the customers and within our own staff. I’m pretty proud that we get to deal with these people.”

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