Applying anhydrous ammonia (NH3) as a form of nitrogen fertilizer has been a practice in use throughout North America for over half a century. And there is good reason for it. Anhydrous ammonia is 82% pure nitrogen, making it one of the richest sources of nitrogen available and pound for pound, one of the least expensive. But along with these benefits come some trade-offs. Anhydrous application requires a much more complex application process than granular forms of nitrogen.

With the growth of corn production in the U.S., equipment for applying anhydrous has brought another selling opportunity for dealers.

In its natural state, at atmospheric pressure, NH3 is a gas. In order for it to become a liquid that can be transported, it must be compressed and then stored in pressurized tanks. Working with this highly pressurized liquid can be dangerous and potentially fatal if not done properly. So even though NH3 is often the least expensive method of applying nitrogen, it is also the most dangerous and working with it requires a high level of knowledge and skill.

As with most farming practices, NH3 application technology has evolved significantly through the years, but the basic premise stays the same: In order for NH3 to be effective, it has to bind with moisture in the soil to become a nonvolatile N2 molecule. To do this, the application tool must inject the NH3 — which turns to a gas as soon as it hits the air — under the soil.

The Technology

Older implements that were used to apply NH3 were simply a metal shank with a tube going down the back of it. Farmers would till the soil until it was pliable enough that when the applicator went through the field and injected the NH3 4-6 inches below the surface, the soil would naturally fall back over the slit and seal it. If the soil didn’t seal properly, the NH3 would escape into the air.

As many farmers have refined no-till practices, the NH3 application technologies have evolved as well. Likewise, a new breed of applicators has evolved that can apply anhydrous while leaving high amounts of residue on the soil surface. Generally speaking, this type of equipment has a disc right in front of the shank to cut the residue, and a very narrow slit is cut in the surface and the ammonia is placed under that. Then a small closing wheel is used to mash the soil back together, sealing the ammonia under the surface. These machines are typically designed to run at higher speeds than earlier application technologies, which allows for more efficient and faster application.

Anhydrous ammonia application equipment has evolved significantly over the last half century to become extremely efficient and able to tackle challenging field situations.
Anhydrous ammonia application equipment has evolved significantly over the last half century to become extremely efficient and able to tackle challenging field situations. Photo courtesy of Blu-Jet

Another factor enabling faster application is improved control devices and distribution systems. Early systems were pump driven and the rate of ammonia was actually controlled by a double or single piston pump and ground driven wheel. The advantage this technology provided was you could mirror your speed and apply the correct amount because everything was being controlled by the ground driven pump. This gave way to variable rate controllers, which then evolved to more sophisticated versions that allow rates to be varied, based on soil samples or GPS mapping.

Don’t Overdo It

But really, the biggest evolution is in the conceptual mind set of those applying the anhydrous, as Nick Jensen, chief marketing officer for Blu-jet explains.

“It used to be that a farmer would just estimate in his head and say, ‘Well I suppose my crop might be around 170 or 180 bushels this year, so I better go out and put 200 pounds of N all the way across my field to make sure I’m covered.’ And now, that same farmer might apply very specific prescriptions depending on which fields and sometimes even which part of the field needs it the most.”

This level of precision is made possible by the technological leaps the industry has seen in the area of precision agriculture enabled by GPS technology.

This convergence of newer application equipment favoring no-till application and GPS-driven technologies allowing precise application, have given rise to the popularity of anhydrous once again. Precise yield information that can be collected via precision farming techniques tells farmers which fields or even which parts of fields need nitrogen in order to optimize crop yields. Having this information allows farmers to be much more precise in their application of nitrogen. The anhydrous equipment that is evolving is capable of shutting off anhydrous flow to half of the part or even shutting off single rows so to prevent excess application. Following these methods can save a bundle in input costs.

These changes are spurring many smaller, innovative companies, as well as established giants in the field, to invest in new developments to a process that has been around for decades.

First Selling Steps

If your dealership is looking to begin representing anhydrous ammonia application equipment, a very good first step, according to Jensen, is to educate yourself.

Dealer Takeaways

• Invest the time and resources to become knowledgeable about the process and all safety aspects of the operation and be a resource for your customers.

• Make sure the product you are representing is of the highest quality in terms of materials and craftsmanship.

• Make sure your salespeople are prepared to calculate cost of ownership and input cost reduction to help justify the sale.

“This is a liquid and gas form of fertilizer that, if handled improperly, can result in the death of the operator,” he says. “So for anyone wanting to sell NH3 equipment, they shouldn’t just take the equipment of the first representative who walks in the door. Dealer principals will want to make sure that a few of their sales and service staff people have been properly trained in the handling of NH3 before they begin to evaluate potential equipment lines to represent.”

This applies to not only knowing the equipment well enough to be able to advise customers, but also for your own service techs working on the equipment.

“It’s one thing to be putting together new equipment in the shop,” says Dave Nelson, co-owner of Brokaw Supply. “But it is completely different when you are out in the field working on a piece of equipment that has gas in the lines. Your techs have to really understand the safety precautions that they need to take.”

Another big area to understand is your insurance coverage in terms of liability.

“If you are selling this equipment and putting it together in your shop, you need to understand the liability risk you are taking on when your guys are plumbing this tool bar,” says Nelson.

Once you’ve done your homework in this arena, many dealers suggest that you look for a product that is extremely durable and well-suited for the conditions in your area.

According to Craig Harthoorn, general manager at Brokaw Supply based in Fort Dodge, Iowa, quality is key.

“To be successful in selling anhydrous ammonia application equipment, you have to have a good product line to start with. It has to be top quality because the conditions can really change from one year to the next — from being mild to moderate to very severe — and you have to have a product that can handle the variety of conditions the weather throws at you.”

Become the Expert

Because anhydrous ammonia application requires a high level of skill and knowledge to work with, it pays for dealerships to make the investment in both staff and training to become experts that your customers can rely on for service and training.

This is especially important for dealers who are just beginning to sell anhydrous application equipment in areas of the country that are beginning to grow corn for the first time. Investing the time and resources to become experts so you can educate your customers who are new to using anhydrous can pay dividends in the long run.

Harthoorn says at Brokaw Supply, reaching this level of expertise at the dealership is definitely an investment.

“The vast majority of our sales are repeat business. Our sales staff sells that first bar, but it’s the service and customer support that sells bars two, three and four,” he says. “We invest a lot of money and time on continuing education for our employees. And we invest a lot of time and money training our customers as well.”

And the customers that he refers to are typically co-op or fertilizer retail establishments who purchase application equipment for the purpose of leasing to individual growers or to use in custom application.

“We conduct traveling training seminars around our territory for our customer base. These classes cover the operation, maintenance and safety aspects of the anhydrous application equipment that we represent.”

Harthoorn says that topics covered in the seminar include:

  • An overview of regulations that govern anhydrous ammonia
  • Protective measures and safety equipment
  • Emergency preparedness
  • Identifying risks associated with inspection, installation, repair and maintenance
  • Discussion of NH3 equipment
    terminology and designs
  • NH3 plumbing and installation guidelines
  • Inspection, installation, repair and maintenance by component
  • Nurse tank equipment inspection

Conducting these seminars helps establish Brokaw Supply as an anhydrous expert in the region they serve.

A Shifting Customer Base

Like Brokaw Supply, many dealers say a majority of their customer base for anhydrous application equipment are co-ops or fertilizer retailers, but this is rapidly changing.

Lucas Meharry, location manager for Fertilizer Dealer Supply in Philo, Ill., says he has seen a major shift in his customer base in recent years that has boosted sales dramatically.

“Traditionally we have sold to the retailers, like CPS or Helena or FS, who were either leasing to or custom applying for individual growers,” he says. “But this has shifted to more and more individual growers buying a toolbar.”

Meharry credits this shift to a convergence of two different factors. First, because the application window for applying NH3 is so slim, farmers do not want to have to wait in line behind several other growers for a leased unit to become available. And second, with the growth in precision agriculture, it is easier for individual growers to justify the purchase of their own application equipment because they can accurately calculate a relatively rapid return on investment.

A Whole New World

NH3 application has not escaped the precision agriculture revolution. Harthoorn says that now more than ever they have to focus on providing customers with precision ag solutions.

“In the old days, you used to be able to sell the product and stop at the hitch pin, but today you have to go all the way up into the tractor cab,” he says. “You must be able to break down fertilizer application into its financial aspects and show the customer how you can be more efficient with the equipment when using precision ag solutions.”

Brokaw Supply has worked in recent years to build a strong precision ag department that involves several people whose sole focus is helping customers with precision ag applications.

“Relationship selling has always been a key element to our success and will continue to stay that way. However, this will only work as long as you can satisfy the customers’ needs. Today, customers are demanding precision ag solutions. It’s in their sprayers, it’s in their tractors, it’s on their office desk and they want it on their anhydrous equipment too.”