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The excessive heat across SA in recent weeks is a significant concern for the farming sector.

The 2023/24 summer crop season started on a favourable footing. We received widespread rains, which was unusual in an El Niño season, which would typically start with drier weather conditions.

According to data from the Crop Estimates Committee, SA farmers managed to plant a sizeable summer grain and oilseed area of 4.4-million hectares, up 0,4% from the 2022/23 season.

For a while it appeared as though SA was on track for yet another excellent harvest. But since the start of February the rain has been scant across the summer crop-growing regions, raising concern about the yield potential of the crops. Perhaps we should not have been completely surprised by the current difficulty.

At the end of January the SA Weather Service warned about such a possibility, stating that its multi-model rainfall forecast “indicates mostly below-normal rainfall over most of the country during February to June, except for some central parts of SA during March to May, where enhanced probabilities for above-normal rainfall is predicted.”

The significance of February cannot be overemphasised in SA's agriculture because it is when important summer grains such as maize, sunflower seed, and soybeans are in their pollination stages. During this stage the crop should ideally receive higher moisture levels to boost yields.

Unfortunately, in SA crops are entering this growth stage with limited moisture across the major growing regions of the Free State, North West, and Mpumalanga, among other provinces. The current weather conditions have raised fears about the possible yields loss. Indeed, in various regions we visited these past few weeks, the crops were visibly strained.

In conversations with farmers and agricultural analysts the consensus is that the last two weeks of February are critical for the crop. This means SA must receive widespread rains this week or next for the crop to recover from its current worrying state. Also making the challenge worse for the farming sector is the excessive heat. Even frequent patchy rains suddenly evaporate with such high temperatures.

While the immediate concern is mainly for summer grains and oilseeds, the higher temperatures and limited rain is also a challenge for other subsectors of agriculture, such as horticulture and livestock.

The vegetable and fruit areas are primarily saved because nearly all production is under irrigation and crops can thrive even with frequent load-shedding. Notably, the dam levels in various regions of the country are healthy, having improved from the past few years’ heavy rains and the good showers at the start of the current season. The irrigation regions of summer crops will certainly also benefit from the improved dam levels. Still, only about 20% of maize, 15% of soybean and 34% of sugar cane are under irrigation, with the majority rain-fed.

The livestock industry could, over time, also feel the effects of the current harsh temperatures if there is no relief from rain to boost the grazing veld. Still, the conditions are manageable so far, with the veld benefiting from the last few years of rains and a favourable start to the season.

At the end of February, the Crop Estimate Committee will release its revised 2023/24 area and first production forecast for summer crops. It is unclear how much of the current heat strain on crops the committee will factor into its estimates. Even our initially optimistic crop forecast of above-average yields in maize, soybeans, and sunflower seed is now highly uncertain because of rainfall scarcity.

The key figures that will provide a better sense of the summer crop harvest is the March 2024 release, when the committee has fully considered the weather events and how much of the crop would have successfully pollinated. 

The season’s outcome will not only affect SA's agricultural output but also has implications for food price inflation, for which we had generally held a positive view of possible moderation because of potential supply recovery and base effects, among other factors.

• Sihlobo is chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University’s department of agricultural economics.

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