When the 2023/24 agricultural season started we feared production conditions would become more challenging than we have seen in the past few seasons. The weather had shifted from a prolonged period of La Niña conditions, which came with a lot of rainfall, to an El Niño, which typically brings drought in Southern Africa.

However, the rainfall conditions in the early part of the season are not living up to expectations. There was heavy rainfall at the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024 throughout most summer rainfall regions. The only province that has not received as much rainfall is the North West.

Against a backdrop of better-than-expected conditions, farmers could plant their usual crops in provinces Free State, the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. The North West experienced delays in plantings due to slightly delayed rainfall compared with other provinces.

The irrigation regions, such as the Northern Cape, also planted on time, benefiting from higher dam levels and reduced load-shedding during the summer holidays to support crop conditions.

The latest Grain SA survey shows that crop conditions in provinces that received early rainfall are favourable, and farmers’ plantings of most summer crops may have reached the intended area at the start of the season. The farmers in some of these provinces indicated that they now expect above-average yields.

The significant risk that farmers most fear is the possibility of hail, especially in areas such as the eastern Free State, which is prone to hail. Still, by mid-January hail had not caused much damage in these areas, and the crops were in decent condition.

Some farmers in these areas also feared that a midsummer drought would damage harvests, particularly the late-planted crops. However, with the SA Weather Service expecting rainfall to continue until March, we are optimistic that drought won’t be a challenge. The crops will need significant rainfall in about February, primarily during pollination time.

Ample harvest

Beyond pollination, we believe the crops would still be in good condition even if rainfall slows in the central and the eastern regions. There remains a risk of dryness in the country’s western areas, particularly the North West.

In its Seasonal Climate Watch report of December 19, the SA Weather Service underscored the point of possible dryness in the western regions, stating that the “multimodel rainfall forecast indicates mostly below-normal rainfall over most of the country during January to May, except for the central and eastern coastal areas, indicating a higher likelihood of above-normal rainfall”.

The reality has thus far proved to be better than the weather service’s projections, as there has been continued favourable rainfall countrywide since the start of January, and it has not been limited to the coastal regions. If the showers remain favourable for the rest of the month and to the end of February across the country, we can confidently expect another ample agricultural harvest.

At the start of the 2023/24 summer crop production season, farmers intended to plant 4.5-million hectares of land, 2% more than the previous season. Given the feedback from the Grain SA survey, we believe farmers met their expected planting area in most provinces. If there are any reductions in an area, it is likely to be in the white maize regions of the North West.

At end-January, the crop estimates committee will release its preliminary area planted estimate for summer grains in 2024. This data will provide a better sense of the planted area. The data for the next month will provide a view of the possible size of the harvest.

These favourable production conditions also support grazing veld for livestock, vegetable production, fruit production and other agricultural activities.

Written for and first appeared on Business Day.

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

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