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By Rod Nickel
Aug 13 (Reuters) - Sinking crop prices and frenzied output growth by nitrogen fertilizer producers have sparked nearly $10 billion worth of deals in the fragmented sector and signal more consolidation may be ahead in the largest of three crop nutrient markets.
Illinois-based CF Industries Holdings Inc, the world's third-largest nitrogen fertilizer producer, was involved in three of four deals in the past month, taking out two potential competitors in its backyard and locking up sales volumes in the United States, the world's No. 1 corn-producing country.
"What CF is doing is classic corporate self-preservation in a world where there are well-financed people trying to get into their core Midwest and U.S. Gulf Coast nitrogen market," said Chris Damas, editor of the BCMI Report on markets.
Unlike in the potash and phosphate industries dominated by a few players, the top 20 nitrogen companies account for just over one-third of global supply, according to consultancy CRU Group. CF's share is less than 4 percent, it said.
On Wednesday farmer co-operative CHS Inc ditched plans to spend $3 billion building a plant in North Dakota and agreed instead to pay $2.8 billion for a stake in CF's nitrogen fertilizer unit, while securing a supply deal.
That move followed last Thursday's announcement CF would buy Netherlands-based rival OCI NV's North American and European plants for $6 billion, to become the biggest publicly traded nitrogen player.
The deals increase CF's market clout by removing two potential U.S. rival plants, just as Agrium Inc, Yara International, Koch Industries and others build North American capacity.
CVR Partners LP said on Monday it would buy Rentech Nitrogen Partners LP for $533 million, creating North America's fifth-largest nitrogen maker.
Potash Corp's $8.6 billion takeover bid for German rival K+S AG has captured headlines this summer, a deal that would expand the reach of the world's biggest fertilizer producer.
The incentive to cut deals in nitrogen fertilizer starts at the farm gate.
Falling grain prices have lightened farmers' wallets, especially after corn plunged Wednesday to a nearly 10-month low.
With lower crop receipts, farmers cannot afford to pay as much for fertilizer and other farm inputs, although farmers apply nitrogen more regularly than other nutrients.
Earlier this year, North American prices of urea, a popular form of nitrogen, slid to a four-year low of less than $300 per tonne.
Global demand for nitrogen in 2014/15 is forecast by International Fertilizer Industry Association at 112 million tonnes of nutrient, about three times phosphate demand and about four times the size of the potash market.
In the CHS deal, CF also secures sales of up to 1.7 million tons annually, similar to its 2014 ammonia-supply deal with phosphate producer Mosaic Co, providing significant sales in uncertain times.
The moves come as global surpluses of urea and ammonia are expected to creep higher to nearly one-fifth of production by 2018, according to a May report by BMO Capital Markets.
That fragmented nature of the industry means it takes longer for producers to rein in output when times are tough.
"You're in a down cycle, commodity prices are down, I think people might be seeing it as a prolonged period," said CHS Chief Executive Officer Carl Casale in an interview.
"(Producers) see that as an opportunity to consolidate the industry (and) that would be driving a lot of public company activity."
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Josephine Mason, Lisa Shumaker and Peter Galloway