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An end to El Niño and likely return of La Niña is positive for SA agriculture

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Wandile Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University's Department of Agricultural Economics. His latest book is “A Country of Two Agricultures”.

The 2024/25 summer crop season will start in October, and if the current La Niña forecasts hold, South Africa should receive early rains during that period to support the season.

After a scorching summer that led to significant crop failure, the El Niño cycle seems to have ended.

Major weather forecasters, including the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, recently confirmed this view. We are currently in a neutral state, where neither El Niño nor La Niña is active.

Hope beyond El Niño: winter crop prospects

While an end to an El Niño is always a welcome development, it comes at a time when the 2023/24 summer crop season is at its tail end. Therefore, this update on weather conditions will not have a material impact on harvest prospects.

If anything, ending an El Niño cycle would mean a normal transition into a winter season. Such normal weather conditions would favour the drying up of mature crops in the summer crop-growing regions, as well as improved harvesting conditions. It would also mean normal to favourable weather conditions for the winter crop-growing regions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Warm, dry winter still on the cards for SA, rains of La Niña beckon

So far, farmers have witnessed the damage of unfavourable weather conditions during the 2023/24 season and are cautious about the 2024/25 winter crop season.

For example, the farmers’ intentions-to-plant data released by the Crop Estimates Committee this past week signalled a 3% year-on-year decline in South Africa’s 2024/25 winter crop plantings to 798,800 hectares. This figure comprises possible plantings for wheat, barley, canola, oats and sweet lupines.

The decline in the area is primarily in wheat, which is down 3% year on year to 520,200 hectares. The barley plantings could also fall 5% year on year to 102,000 hectares, and the oats plantings could be at 20,500 hectares (down 26% year on year) and sweet lupines at 15,000 hectares (down 6% year on year). Canola is the only winter crop whose area plantings could lift 8% year on year to 141,100 hectares.

Admittedly, it is still early and farmers will adjust their planting decisions in the coming weeks as they progress with the seasonal activity.

The need for cautious optimism

Beyond the near-term winter crop season, the weather outlook for the 2024/25 summer season is also positive. The IRI forecasts the return of a La Niña weather phenomenon from May 2024 throughout the year.

This means the excessively hot and drier weather conditions of the 2023/24 summer season that resulted in crop failures may have been temporary.

In the coming months, we could soon transition into a favourable rainy season for South Africa’s agriculture. However, it is too early to be confident about the outlook.

Still, the rise in the probability of La Niña occurrence to over 50% from August 2024 throughout the year is a source of optimism. 

The 2024/25 summer crop season will start in October, and if the current La Niña forecasts hold, South Africa should receive early rains during that period to support the season.

Admittedly, farmers across South Africa are focused on the current 2023/24 summer crop season. The yield prospects are bleak for various regions. 

The financial impact of the poor 2023/24 summer crop season on farmers will be more evident over the coming weeks and months as the market receives crop deliveries.

Therefore, while the weather outlook for the 2024/25 season looks promising, this may be something that farmers will pay attention to after the harvest season of the current crop. By then, we will also better understand whether La Niña will extend into 2025 and for how long.

The current forecasts only apply until December 2024. The early months of 2025 are vital for summer crops. For example, the 2023/24 summer crop season started well, with favourable rainfall. It was only in February that the problem of dryness and heat waves intensified through to March. This two-month event changed the agricultural fortunes of the country for the worse.

Still, after a challenging 2023/24 summer season, the IRI and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology signal the end of El Niño. Notably, the return of La Niña is an even more welcome development for agriculture.

While we primarily reflected on crops in this note, the positive weather outlook is for all agricultural activity in the entire southern Africa region. We will keep monitoring these developments over the coming months. DM

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