Written for and first published in the Business Day
The start of SA’s 2022/2023 summer season has brought heavy rains across most regions, with varied agricultural implications. The horticultural industry, specifically fruit, has been keenly watching whether they would damage orchards.
Fortunately, there hasn’t been significant damage so far, with the exception of some erosion in banana and macadamia fields in parts of Mpumalanga. Positively, the rains have improved dam levels, which will be helpful for irrigation.
However, the livestock industry is at increased risk of disease, since heavy rains tend to be followed by significantly warmer temperatures that allow tick and other insect populations to flourish. There is a relatively higher possibility of tick- and insect-borne diseases such as redwater, heartwater, anaplasmosis, RVF, blue tongue, and horse sickness. This means livestock farmers will have to remain alert during this period and apply vaccines where possible.
In field crops, the sugar cane growing regions of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga have broadly benefited from increased moisture, supporting growing conditions. This is notwithstanding business challenges brought to the industry by Tongaat Hulett’s financial difficulties.
The summer grain and oilseed planting season started in October in the eastern regions, though heavy rains have delayed planting in some areas. For example, Mpumalanga, which would typically be nearing the completion stages of soya bean planting, is estimated to have sowed only about 40% of its soya bean fields so far, according to a Grain SA survey. The province’s optimal planting window for soya beans ends this week, so the additional hectares will be planted outside the window.
Still, this should not be a major problem, nor something we haven’t seen before. In the 2021/2022 season, excessive rains meant most of the summer crops were planted a month after the optimal window. Yet that season still achieved record yields in soya beans and decent harvests in maize and other crops. Typically, the fear is that crops planted outside the planting window will be at risk of frost late in the season. But in the recent past, we haven’t seen many occurrences of frost, which encourages hope for yet another good soya bean production year.
In KwaZulu-Natal soya bean planting of the intended area is roughly 80% complete, and 50% for maize. The delays here are also a result of the heavy rains of the past few weeks. The Eastern Cape has made good progress but has not yet completed planting. In the eastern Free State, about 40% of soya beans and maize have been planted. The fields are exceptionally wet in this region, and farmers will have to get a few days of drier weather to be able to resume planting.
In the western regions of the country, the optimal planting window for grains and oilseeds is roughly mid-November to mid-December. There is still enough time in these areas, especially if we get more days of sunshine, as the recent rains have improved soil moisture. The western Free State is very wet and will need to dry up for maize and soya bean planting to gain momentum. In North West, farmers are still preparing the land for planting in most regions.
Overall, while the early part of the summer season has brought heavy rains over some regions of SA, I still consider conditions broadly favourable. The delays we see in summer grain and oilseed plantings are not a unique or particularly worrying development.
The 2021/2022 season, which delivered large yields, also had an excessively wet start, and some areas had to replant. Even if plantings are a month behind the optimal window I am still optimistic that yields could be strong given recent trends.
However, with input costs have risen significantly, replanting has become a more costly exercise for farmers. In some areas, they may have to delay planting until the early-season heavy rains have passed or at least moderated.
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