My annual December drive from Pretoria to the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape affords me an opportunity to assess South Africa’s agricultural conditions after the first few months of the summer season.
Whether one enjoys this trip largely depends on weather conditions. In drought seasons like in 2015, this could be a depressing drive, traversing the dry grains and oilseed fields. Conversely, this could be an uplifting drive in rainy seasons, with green and lush fields visible from the highway. Thank goodness, my drive this year was to the latter, refreshing as in December 2021, another La Niña induced rainy summer season.
We are again in another La Niña rainy season. The heavy showers since the start of October have helped improve soil moisture across the country and assisted farmers in boosting plantings. But not all areas have fully completed the areas they intended to plant. Some fields in Free State, Eastern Cape and North West are yet to complete grains and oilseed plantings. There will be roughly a month delay in plantings.
Ordinarily, the regions to the east of the N1 highway plant maize and soybeans between mid-October and mid-November. Meanwhile, the regions to the west plant maize and sunflower seed, amongst other crops, between mid-November to mid-December. We have passed this period with some areas both sides of the N1 highway yet to be fully planted. Some minor replanting might be required in some regions following the heavy rains of the past few months, which caused excessive floods in some areas of the Free State, for example.
The delays we see in summer grains and oilseed plantings are neither unique nor worrisome. The 2021/22 season, which delivered large yields, was one such season that 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. This is despite the fact that the current season has experienced higher fertiliser, seeds, and agrochemicals costs this time, where replanting is an increasingly costly exercise for farmers.
In conversations I had with some farmers, they 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 as there are hopes that as sunny days become more frequent, the spraying process could gain momentum where needed.
When the season started, South African farmers intended to plant a total area of 4,35 million hectares of summer grains and oilseeds in the 2022/23 season, up mildly by 0,2% from the previous season. I remain positive that farmers will be able to complete this area.
Regarding the livestock industry, green pastures are a welcome development, especially given the high feed prices. Even the typically dry areas in the regions bordering the Free State and the Eastern Cape are unusually green and welcoming this year, a similar scenery as in December 2021. This will benefit the livestock farmers in these areas.
The only challenge livestock farmers can expect with wet conditions that tend to be followed by significantly warm temperatures are the prevalence of parasites and parasitic diseases. Tick and insect populations are likely to flourish this summer season. Hence, there is a relatively higher possibility of tick and insect-borne diseases such as redwater, heartwater, anaplasmosis, RVF, blue tongue, horse sickness, etc. This means the livestock farmers will have to remain alert during this period and apply vaccines where possible.
In sum, the benefit of a La Niña induced rainy season since the start of October is visible with green vegetation across South Africa. But the agricultural impact of these rains remains mixed. There is a possibility that excessive rains may negatively impact crop yields, in part due to planting delays. Typically, the fear is that crops planted outside the planting window – October to December — would be at risk of frost later in the season.
But in the recent past, we haven’t seen such occurrences of frost, which gives me hope for yet another good agricultural year. Admittedly, farmers will likely receive more rain than they bargained for in the coming months. On December 23, 2022, the South African Weather Service stated that “With the continued persistence of the La Niña event, there is a high chance that it will have its usual effect on South Africa, which is generally for above-normal rainfall and below normal temperatures over the summer rainfall areas.”
Overall, I still believe we are in for another good agricultural season, especially if January presents warmer temperatures and sunny days than the past few months.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks!
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