I typically drive annually from Pretoria to the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape each December. This trip allows me 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 and the subsequent impact on crops and vegetation. In drought seasons like 2015, traversing dry grains, oilseed fields, and dry grazing veld could be depressing. Conversely, this could be an uplifting drive in rainy seasons, with green and lush fields visible from the highway.

This year’s drive qualifies for the latter. From Pretoria to the Wild Coast, the vegetation was welcoming and green, having benefitted from the early summer favourable rainfall. In areas planted early in the season, the maize fields looked healthy from a distance. Other crops were also visibly in good condition.

One would not expect such favourable conditions amid an El Nino season. But the typical dryness of an El Nino may only start to intensify from March 2024. This is mainly the case for the central and eastern regions of South Africa, which could receive above-normal rainfall in the month before that, according to the South African Weather Service. Meanwhile, the country’s western regions could experience below-normal rain throughout the season. The soil moisture levels in the West are already low and thus concerning for farmers.

Still, not all areas have fully completed the areas they intended to plant. Some fields in Free State and Eastern Cape have yet to complete grains and oilseed plantings, and such areas are behind the typical planting calendar.

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 and mid-December. We have passed this period with some areas on both sides of the N1 highway yet to be fully planted.

The delays in summer grains and oilseed plantings are neither unique nor worrisome and were caused by excessive moisture in some regions. Also, the heat has disrupted activity for some weeks. The 2021/22 and the 2022/23 seasons, which delivered large yields, were some of such seasons that planted behind typical schedules.

In a few exchanges with farmers, they appreciated the recent rains, although some were excessive. The issue they worry about more these days is extreme heat, which the country’s northern regions are already experiencing. Higher temperatures, when not followed by rain, can damage agriculture.

Still, this is not a significant issue for now, as there are hopes the country could still have a decent season (bearing in mind the risks of harsh production conditions in the North West province).

When the season started, South African farmers intended to plant a total area of 4,5 million hectares for that 2023/24 summer grains and oilseed. This is up by 2% year-on-year. Moreover, the view from farm inputs organizations suggests that they also saw reasonably encouraging sales, further supporting the optimistic view about crop planting.

Regarding the livestock industry, green pastures are a welcome development, especially as the feed prices remain relatively high compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. The challenge for livestock farmers is the biosecurity weaknesses that should be resolved to curb the spread of animal diseases in the country and minimize the outbreaks.

I still believe we are in for another good agricultural season, especially if January and February present favourable rainfall. The South African Weather Service (SAWS) captured the optimism about the country’s central and eastern regions in the 19 December 2023 Seasonal Climate Watch. SAWS stated that “…multi-model rainfall forecast indicates mostly below-normal rainfall over most of the country during Jan-Feb-Mar (JFM), Feb-Mar-Apr (FMA) and Mar-Apr-May (MAM) with the exception of the central and eastern coastal areas indicating higher likelihood of above-normal rainfall.” This worries me about the western regions of the country, and provides hope for the central and eastern regions.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks!

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

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