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The new age of NH3

12/12/2011 @ 11:26am

Anhydrous ammonia may be 50 years old, but today's system is not your granddad's NH3. The product is the same efficient and economical source of nitrogen, but the methods of applying and distributing it are undergoing some dramatic changes.

“The era of the 1,000-gallon nurse tank that was designed to serve a four- to five-shank toolbar is rapidly coming to an end,” says Craig Rife, owner of Ag Associates LLC, Hutchinson, Kansas, and regional distributor for Exactrix NH3 Systems.

“Those tanks deliver a flow of only 8 to 12 gallons per minute when temperatures are cool. But the 40- to 60-foot applicators many large farmers are pulling today require a flow rate of 25 gallons per minute or more. Anhydrous ammonia's transportation and delivery system – as well as the regulations that control it – needs to catch up to this application capacity because farmers need to use NH3 to remain competitive,” adds Rife.

To boost their NH3 capabilities, farmers are turning to larger nurse tanks, tender trucks, transport deliveries, and on-farm storage. Because it's a hazardous material, each of these options falls under a host of federal, state, and local regulations.

“Generally, it's the state regulations that determine what can be done,” says Rife. “These vary widely, so it's critical that farmers understand them before investing in their NH3 handling system.”

It's estimated that 250,000 of the traditional 1,000-gallon and 1,450-gallon nurse trailers are in the field. Once worth only a few hundred dollars at auction, these trailers are now prized for stacking on twin and triple trailers to get NH3 to the field faster and to keep big applicators running longer. New 2,000-gallon nurse trailers have also become popular and even 3,000-gallon units (the largest allowed on roads by DOT regulations) are now available.

There's also a trend for farmers to own their own nurse trailers, rather than using those from a fertilizer dealer, so they can better control delivery and availability of the product. In most states, however, those tanks are still subject to the same safety regulations and inspection requirements as fertilizer dealers face.

“In Kansas, vapor relief valves on nurse tanks must be no more than five years old, and hoses must be replaced according to the date stamped on them. Nylon hoses (green stripe) have a six-year life; stainless steel hose (gray stripe) has an eight-year life,” says Rick Wiedmann, fertilizer section chief with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Shipman, Illinois, farmer Richard Shelton added ten, 2,000-gallon nurse tanks, along with an 18,000-gallon stationary tank, to his operation over the past two years.

“We were afraid of not being able to get NH3 in a timely manner,” he says. “This would have occurred in 2010 if we didn't have on-farm storage. We invested about $110,000 in the project and figure we've gotten a 20% annual return on the after-tax portion of that amount because we can buy tanker loads when prices are low.

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