We continue to receive evidence that the 2023-24 summer crop season might not be as bad as some feared when discussing the El Niño prospects.

For example, on October 31, the South African Weather Service (SAWS), in its monthly Seasonal Climate Watch, noted that the “multi-model rainfall forecast indicates above-normal rainfall for the north-east of the country during November-December-January, December-January-February and January-February-March with below normal rainfall predicted for the central and south-western parts of the country”.

SAWS added, “Predictions still favour above-normal rainfall conditions over the north-eastern parts of the country, even with an El Niño in place.”

Considering that the soil moisture is excellent across most regions of the country from the past rainy seasons, the possibility of favourable rainfall through to early next year means that South Africa could have a better summer crop season in 2023/24.

Notably, this recent update is slightly different from the message the SAWS shared in the previous month, where it said the prospects of dryness were from the start of 2024. The most recent message speaks of good rains through to February 2024 in the north-eastern regions. This means favourable rains could also cover the pollination stages of the summer crop, where moisture is needed the most, and thus lead to better yields.

In addition, while the central and western regions could see below-normal rainfall from the start of 2024, the crops could still be in good condition. We base this view on the fact that soil moisture would be healthy, having benefited from rains through to the end of the year, adding to better moisture levels from the past rainy seasons.

Still, what is essential is for grain and oilseed farmers to plant on time so that, by the start of 2024, the crop is in its growing stages. While the country’s western regions typically plant from mid-November to the end of December, we think starting the planting as soon as possible would be ideal so that the crop has an extended growing period before the El Niño-induced lower rainfall period in these regions.

Also encouraging is that recently released data by the Crop Estimates Committee reaffirmed our positive view about the 2023/24 summer crop season. The committee stated that South African farmers intend to plant a total area of 4,47 million hectares of summer grain and oilseed in the 2023/24 season, up 2% year-on-year. The farmers were this upbeat, possibly basing their views on soil moisture conditions on their farms. These positive rainfall prospects further strengthen their view.

As we stated last week, these are “intentions” to plant, not plantings yet. It is still early in the season and we will only have a preliminary area planting estimate for the 2023/24 season at the end of January 2024. Still, these intentions to plant data paint an encouraging picture and the planting progress is evident when one drives across South Africa.

From now on, we will be watching the rainfall and the temperature conditions across the country. On the temperature aspect, the SAWS notes that “minimum and maximum temperatures are expected to be mostly above normal countrywide for the forecast period”.

Having observed the scorching temperatures in the northern hemisphere and the negative impact on agriculture in their recent summer season, this will require constant monitoring in South Africa as the season continues.

Overall, the weather prospects continue to paint an encouraging picture of the 2023/24 summer crop season and the farmers will probably respond by expanding their planting areas, as they have signalled.

We have commented mainly on grains and oilseeds but the improved weather conditions will benefit all agricultural sub-sectors, thus boding well for growth and food production.

Written for and first published in the Mail and Guardian.

Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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