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SA summer crops in fair condition pointing to a ‘decent’ harvest – but rain next few weeks crucial


Wandile Sihlobo is chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and author of ‘A Country of Two Agricultures’.

Current crop conditions provide great confidence for yet another decent summer grain and oilseed harvest in South Africa, but rainfall in the next few weeks is crucial to ensuring a better agricultural harvest.

This past week, I drove from Pretoria to Edenville, a small farming town in the northern region of the Free State, for a Farmers’ Day.

The drive provided yet another opportunity to assess crop conditions up close. I deliberately stayed away from the N1 highway and drove through Sasolburg and Heilbron to get a better view of the fields.

From what I could tell from a distance, the production conditions have been excellent – the crop fields remain green and the grazing veld is lush. 

But we are now at a critical crop-growing stage where, in various regions, flowering or pollinating is starting. There is therefore a need for more moisture to improve yields’ potential.

In conversations with farmers in Edenville – farmers from regions of the Free State – all talked of the great start to the summer season and agreed that conditions had been reasonably favourable on their farms.

At the same time, they almost all stressed the need for rain within the next two weeks to ensure the yield potential of their crops.

The heat stress in the past few days has increased a growing concern for summer crops.

Meanwhile, the grazing conditions remain favourable. 

The Free State farmers’ reflections are not unique to the province; the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and other summer crop-producing provinces need rain this month to ensure a decent harvest.

Indeed, farmers made sure that they planted a decent area of summer grains and oilseeds, which is encouraging as the start of the season had its fair share of challenges, with worries of potential El Niño conditions. 

Fortunately, El Niño this year has been different; it has not led to the drought we saw in the 2015/16 season. If anything, the rain was excellent from the start of the season and thus supported the planting conditions for summer crops.

For example, as I have argued elsewhere, the recently released data by South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee puts the preliminary area plantings for summer grains and oilseeds at 4.41 million hectares, up by 0.4% y/y.

This increase is not limited to a few crops, but across most summer crops except for soybeans, where plantings possibly fell by 10% y/y to 1.04 million hectares (which is still well above the five-year average area of 867,240 hectares). 

The area plantings for other major grains such as maize and sunflower seed is also well above the five-year average. 

White maize plantings are forecast at 1.56 million hectares, up 2% y/y, with yellow maize planting at 1.08 million hectares, up 2%/y. 

This places the total commercial maize planting estimate at 2.64 million hectares, 2% more than the 2022/23 production season.

If we consider a five-year average maize yield of 5.78 tonnes per hectare in an area of 2.64 million hectares, South Africa can have a maize harvest of 15.25 million tonnes. 

This crop would be well above South Africa’s five-year production of 14.95 million tonnes, down 7% y/y. 

Notably, a maize harvest of this size – against South Africa’s annual maize consumption of roughly 12 million tonnes – implies that the country would remain a net exporter of maize.

Similarly, applying a five-year average soybean yield of 2.09 tonnes per hectare on an area of 1.04 million hectares would lead to a possible harvest of 2.17 million tonnes.

While this would be 21% down y/y, it would be well above the five-year average harvest. Importantly, it would mean South Africa remains a net exporter of soybeans.

Sunflower seed area is forecast to recover notably to 613,200 hectares in the 2023/24 production season, up 10% y/y. With a five-year average yield of 1.37 tonnes per hectare, this area provides a possible harvest of 840,084 tonnes (up 16% y/y).

The groundnuts area is 41,200 hectares (up 32% y/y), with sorghum at 39,600 hectares (up 17% y/y) and dry beans at 39,400 hectares (up 8% y/y).

These data and the current crop conditions provide great confidence for yet another decent summer grain and oilseed harvest in South Africa.

Still, things are uncertain; rainfall in the next few weeks is crucial to ensuring a better agricultural harvest.

Promisingly, the weather forecast for the last week of February shows prospects of heavy rain across most summer crop-growing regions of the country.

Also vital in the last week of this month is the Crop Estimate Committee’s first production forecast, which will likely provide further comfort about the possible crop size. DM


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