This afternoon the South African Weather Service released its Seasonal Climate Watch update highlighting that “the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is currently in an El Niño state and, according to the latest predictions, is expected to persist through most summer months. ENSO’s impact is still limited for the initial forecast period, with early summer forecasts indicating to manifest its impact during the summer period.”

I thought it would be helpful to stress again that forecasts of an El Niño occurrence in the 2023/24 summer season do not necessarily equate to a bad agricultural season. The upcoming season of possible below-normal rainfall, i.e., El Niño, follows a rare consecutive four years of heavy rains that have improved soil moisture and natural grazing veld.

This means there is a natural cushion for agricultural activity even if the rains are below the average (typically around 500 mm) in South Africa. What will be necessary, however, is for the showers to fall in critical periods, such as seed germination and pollination stages of growth, which are all essential for crop growing.

It would not be South Africa’s first time in such a fortunate position. The summer of 2018/19 had a weather El Niño event. Still, the rains fell in critical periods, and South Africa attained a decent crop harvest, with commercial maize at 11,2 million tonnes, soybeans at 1,2 million tonnes and sunflower seed at 678 000 tonnes. Other field crops and horticulture also achieved decent yields that year.

Notably, the 2018/19 season was not preceded with favourable four years of favourable rainfall that improved soil moisture. Therefore, the current position is better than the most recent El Niño period.

Now, we are not the only ones holding this optimistic view. In the past few weeks, the International Grains Council (IGC) forecasted South Africa’s 2023/24 maize production at 15,6 million tonnes, down marginally from the current crop of 16,4 million tonnes.

Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Pretoria office recently released their forecast placing South Africa’s 2023/24 maize production forecast at 15,8 million tonnes, marginally above the IGC’s figures. These institutions have assumed a mild El Niño, and soil moisture is currently good.

Still, while we are optimistic about the upcoming season, we doubt the crop could be this large and see 13-14 million tonnes as more likely.

Overall, the upcoming 2023/24 season promises to be more forgiving than some might have initially feared.

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