Note: This essay is written for Business Day
A drive from Pretoria to the Eastern Cape in December always offers an opportunity to assess the country’s agricultural conditions after the first few months of the summer season. During drought, this could be a depressing drive. This was the case in December 2015, when the long drive from Pretoria to the former Transkei felt like a trip across The Karoo.
Unlike December 2015, this season’s drive was as refreshing as no other season in recent memory. The vegetation is green and lush from Pretoria all the way to Port St Johns in the Wild Coast. After all, 2016/17 and 2019/20, which turned out to be bumper seasons for South Africa’s agricultural sector, received late rains. I still remember my December 2019 drive, where the vegetation across central South Africa was much drier than in 2020. But the rains from the end of December 2019 into January 2020 helped improve soil moisture, and farmers completed summer crop planting in the usual area of about four million hectares across South Africa.
This year the heavy rains since the start of October improved the moisture much faster. Notably, the 2021/22 production season follows another wet season, which means that soil moisture across the country was at relatively better levels to permit plantings. But the La Niña rains this year fell much earlier than usual and were more frequent and heavy; hence the vegetation at a distance is green from northern South Africa to the central and to coastal regions.
But this doesn’t mean all is well in South Africa’s agricultural sector. The heavy rains have been both a blessing and a curse. From the start of October, the regions that planted early, such as Mpumalanga, eastern areas of the Free State and parts of KwaZulu Natal, have thus far benefited from early rains, and the crop is in good condition.
But the regions whose optimal planting dates are typically from November of each year have struggled with excessive moisture, which somewhat delayed plantings and damaged the early plantings in some areas. Some of this is visible even in fields between Gauteng and Free State, where the height of the crop shows both new and late-planted crops. Still, since most farmers wouldn’t need to fertilize when they replant, but rather add seed, the current challenge is far better than dryness.
In conversations I had with some farmers, they also noted that the wet conditions also delayed the fertilizer spraying process in some crops, which could negatively affect crop yields. Still, this is not a significant issue at the moment as there are hopes that if the coming weeks provide a pause, then the spraying process could begin.
I didn’t get to see the western regions of South Africa, primarily the North West; it’s the region I hope to visit in January. But so far, the feedback I have received from farmers in this part of the country is that extreme wet conditions and rains are providing challenges for younger crops.
For the livestock industry, the improvement in the pasture when feed prices are at higher levels is a welcome development. The lush green that one observes across the country is mainly the pasture for livestock grazing. Even the typically dry areas such as small towns and farming regions bordering the Free State and the Eastern Cape are unusually green and welcoming this year.
The only challenge livestock farmers can expect with wet conditions this year are parasites and parasitic diseases to flourish. It might be the case that this season will have a higher than normal demand for parasite remedies and vaccines against diseases like horse sickness, Rift Valley fever, lumpy skin disease, tick-borne gall sickness, and heartwater.
Unfortunately, industry role-players worry that some of these remedies and vaccines might not be available in the country due to the deterioration of the Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), a government institution responsible for manufacturing some of these vaccines for livestock. This issue requires the urgent intervention of the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Ms Thoko Didiza. The livestock role players also need to monitor these diseases and communicate efficiently with the authorities.
In sum, the benefit of the La Niña induced heavy rains since the start of October is visible with green vegetation across South Africa. But the agricultural impact of these rains remains mixed. There are risks to crop yields in excessively wet areas where planting and fertilizer spraying have been delayed.
The communal farmers also suffer the same challenge as some that I have spoken about within the Eastern Cape have not been able to attend to the crop and cut weeds in weeks, and all this is threatening yields. The livestock industry stands to benefit, but there are diseases risks on the horizon that should be monitored.
Overall, I still believe that we are in for another good agricultural season, especially if January presents some warmer temperatures than the past few months.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks!
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