The months of April and October are critical periods in the seasonal cycle of SA’s agriculture. These months correspond with summer and winter crops’ planting and harvesting periods.
In October, the winter crops are typically maturing and approaching the harvest stages, while the summer crop regions usually commence plantings around the same time. In April, it is the opposite — typically marked by the planting of winter crops and the approach of the harvest season for summer crops. Notably, the harvest period also approaches at about this time for major fruits such as citrus.
These events make the weather an even more important consideration during this period. The planting regions of winter crops would need increased moisture, whereas the harvesting period of summer crops and horticulture would require cooler and drier weather conditions.
This time around, however, the weather conditions might not be as optimal for harvesting summer crops and planting winter crops. In its Seasonal Climate Watch of March 31, the SA Weather Service noted that its “multi-model rainfall forecast indicates above-normal rainfall for the northeast of the country and below-normal rainfall for the southwest during late-autumn through to early-winter”.
The ideal conditions would be average rainfall to dryness for the northeast regions of the country and slightly above-normal rain in the southwest. The south-western regions of SA, specifically the Western Cape, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of the winter crops plantings, are winter crop regions.
The current weather forecast does not spell disaster for farming; rather, a need for farmers to plan the planting activity with the prospect of dryness in the earlier part of the winter crop season. I do not foresee this as a threat to the winter crops, especially if the weather conditions normalise later.
The soil moisture in the winter crop growing areas of SA is at a reasonably good level following higher rainfall in the past season and 2021/2022 summer. Notably, better soil moisture in provinces such as the Free State, Limpopo and Northern Cape could help boost winter crop plantings, specifically for wheat. The current wheat prices, with spot price up 35% year on year at the end of March at R6,615 per tonne, could also incentivise farmers to increase plantings. As I have discussed previously, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is a major factor behind the increases in wheat prices globally.
The Crop Estimates Committee will release the data on farmers’ planting intentions for winter crops on April 26. I expect this data to show more robust plantings than the 2021/2022 production season, where wheat plantings were at 523,500ha, canola at 100,000ha and oats at 36,250ha. These plantings were also higher than the 2020/2021 season, as farmers reduced the area planting for barley, another winter crop, due to profitability, and generally expanded the area.
At the same time, the summer crop regions are not necessarily at risk of crop damage or deterioration in quality because of the current showers. However, what could happen is a delay in harvest compared with the previous year’s schedule. It is also worth noting that some summer crop regions did not plant during the traditional optimal periods because of excessive rains at the start of the season. Some areas had to replant following damages caused by the rains. This means the harvest period or maturing of crops could be slightly behind the normal periods, making the prolonged rains less dramatic on the yield potential.
SA’s summer crop harvest is at relatively good levels when viewed from a long-term basis. The 2021/2022 maize harvest is projected at 14.7-million tonnes, which is well above the 10-year average of 12.8-million tonnes and annual maize consumption of 11.8-million tonnes. The sunflower seed and soybeans harvest are projected to be the second-largest on record at 959,450 tonnes and 1.9-million tonnes, respectively. This is due to an expansion in area plantings and expected better yields in some regions. Importantly, this is a positive picture compared to worries of a poor harvest at the start of 2022.
In the horticulture industry, the citrus harvest outlook remains positive. The heavy rains during the year caused minimal damage to the industry from a national perspective. The primary focus in the citrus industry is logistics, specifically ports efficiency, and the need to widen export markets as a significant share of the export market, roughly 7% to Russia, has been interrupted by the ongoing war in Ukraine.
In sum, the weather is again a significant focus in agriculture as we get into April. The outlook from the SA weather authorities is not favourable for both the plantings of winter crops and the harvest of summer crops and fruits. Still, this is not something to worry about. Instead, it is a major factor to monitor and plan with its uncertainty in mind. I remain optimistic about SA’s agricultural activity in the coming months.
Written for a first appeared on Business Day.
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