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Upbeat South African agricultural assessments wither in February heat as El Niño bites

Upbeat South African agricultural assessments wither in February heat as El Niño bites
El Niño has dealt a blow to upbeat agricultural assessments in South Africa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Just a few weeks ago, South Africa was widely forecast to have a decent harvest of summer grain crops such as the staple maize despite the emergence of El Niño. But the weather pattern, which typically heralds drought in this region, has produced a scorching February and previous expectations are now withering on the vine.

In a note to clients this week, Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, warned that February heat waves and a dearth of rain could see South Africa produce fewer summer grains than previously expected. 

“The excessive heat across South Africa currently is a significant concern for the farming sector. The 2023/24 summer crop season started on favourable footing. We received widespread rains, which was unusual in an El Niño season,” Sihlobo wrote. 

“According to data from the Crop Estimates Committee, the farmers managed to plant a sizeable summer grain and oilseed area of 4.4 million hectares, up by 0.4% from the 2022/23 season. For a while, it appeared as though South Africa was on track for yet another excellent harvest.”

There were also good soil moisture levels – a legacy of a prolonged La Niña event which brought generally good rains to South African grain farmers for three straight seasons. 

At the start of February, South Africa’s grain-growing areas looked like they might dodge the El Niño bullet. But the unrelenting sun since then has burnt a widening hole in this rosy outlook.

It must be said that the South African Weather Service had from December been forecasting drier conditions for the rest of the summer. But January was still a reasonably wet month over swathes of the grain belt which runs from Mpumalanga through the northern Free State and North West. 

“The significance of February cannot be overemphasised in South Africa’s agriculture. This month, significant summer grains such as maize, sunflower seed and soybeans are in pollination stages. During this pollination stage, the crop should ideally have higher moisture levels to boost yields. The crop is entering this growth stage with limited moisture across the major growing regions in Free State, North West and Mpumalanga… These current weather conditions have raised fears about the possible yield loss,” Sihlobo said in his note to clients. 

At the end of February, the Crop Estimates Committee will release its revised 2023/24 planting area estimates and its first production forecast for summer crops. That will give the first clear indication of expectations of the size of harvests based on observations gathered during this critical period. 

The US Department of Agriculture has already produced forecasts, though its initial prognosis is so early in the season that it is a bit of a thumb suck.

It forecast South Africa’s 2023/24 commercial maize production at 15.2 million tonnes. This would be down 7% year-on-year but is well above the long-term average of 13.6 million tonnes, and is more than enough to meet domestic consumption for this caloric staple.

There are no expectations this season, even with the unfavourable weather of recent weeks, of a repeat of the 2016 catastrophe. South Africa’s maize crop that year was only about 7.8 million tonnes – just more than half of the long-term average – because of an El Niño-triggered drought.

But El Niño may yet take a bite out of South Africa’s current grain harvest, and that will have implications for food inflation at a time when it has been slowing. 

El Niño is at least expected to fade in the next couple of months, with global weather patterns reverting to “neutral” conditions. In the meantime, it is taking more of a toll than previously expected. DM

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