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WEATHER OUTLOOK

Wet summer still predicted for SA’s northeast, grain farmers confident despite El Niño

Wet summer still predicted for SA’s northeast, grain farmers confident despite El Niño
(Photos: Unsplash / Daoudi Aissa / Irena Carpacci / Polina Rytova)

The monthly forecast from the SA Weather Service still sees a wetter-than-usual summer for the northeast region, with a couple of caveats. And even with the re-emergence of El Niño, summer grain farmers have indicated they plan to cultivate more hectares this year than last, signalling confidence in the upcoming season.

The latest Seasonal Climate Watch from the SA Weather Service (Saws), which looks five months ahead, still sees a wet summer for South Africa’s northeast and a dry one for the western and central regions — an outlook clouded by the El Niño weather pattern.  

“Current global forecasts indicate a great deal of uncertainty for the typical drier conditions that South Africa experiences during typical El Niño seasons, in particular over the eastern parts of the country,” Saws said.  

This is what it said in its previous forecast, but this time there is an added layer of uncertainty in the east because of of El Niño, which remains the wild card in its prediction pack.   

Below-normal rainfall is still seen for the central and southwestern regions, with above-normal normal temperatures countrywide.  

Much of the grain belt extending into the northern Free State and parts of North West are seen as relatively wet in the early summer months, with conditions becoming progressively drier in the new year. The eastern sections of the grain belt in Mpumalanga are seen as remaining wet until March.   

Early rains can be a red rag to farmers, who are hoping to reap another bumper summer grain crop as domestic maize prices rise and fertiliser costs fall.  

Last week, South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee released its first estimate for the 2024 season of farmers’ intentions to plant summer crops including the staple maize. 

It showed that farmers plan to plant 4.47 million hectares of summer grains and oil seeds, a 2% increase from last season. Of this, 2.63 million hectares are slated for maize, also a 2% rise on the previous year.  

This is above the 10-year annual average of 2.53 million hectares, according to Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa.  

“My baseline view is that with improved soil moisture from the last rainy seasons, mainly in east and central South Africa, the expected El Niño will likely have minimal impact on the agricultural conditions. With that said, we remain concerned about the far western regions of South Africa,” Sihlobo said in a note on the data.  

The previous rainy seasons were triggered by the La Niña weather pattern, which usually brings wet weather to this region. El Niño, by contrast, typically heralds drought in southern Africa, and the 2014-2016 event seared the platteland.  

Still, farmers have reason for cautious optimism after a trio of stout harvests. According to Sihlobo, fertiliser prices — which account for a third of farmers’ input costs — in September were down by about 50% compared with the same month in 2022.  

Meanwhile, domestic white maize prices on South Africa’s futures market have risen by more than 55% since May. It all adds up to an ideal climate for planting, provided the weather holds up and El Niño does not bare its fangs in this region sooner than currently expected.  

This, in turn, has huge implications for South African food security and prices against the backdrop of an unfolding cost-of-living crisis. Consumer food inflation in South Africa moderated to 8.0% in September from 8.2% in August, but price pressures remain in the pipeline. DM

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