Widespread rainfall over the past two weeks has improved summer grain and oilseed crop conditions across the country. The outlook for the next couple of weeks is positive, according to a recent report from the South African Weather Service (SAWS). The weather bureau noted a possibility of above-average rainfall over the next two months in the summer rainfall areas, which should support the late-planted areas.

While this is a welcome development, it is worth noting that this is not a normal rainfall pattern for South Africa. The crop would typically be maturing around April, but this time things are different due to late plantings, on the back of delayed rainfall.

Seasonal shift

There are currently two fundamental aspects that underpin the weather factor in South Africa’s agricultural sector. Firstly, there is the inter-seasonal variation in rainfall. The country now receives an average annual rainfall that is lower than in previous years, compared to past trends. South Africa has received an average annual rainfall of 526mm for the past 60 years. However, there has been a progressive decline in annual average rainfall in recent years, with the post-2010 annual rainfall averaging 7% lower than that of the previous four decades (1970-2010).

Secondly, there is an intra-seasonal variation in which the geographic and temporal distribution of rainfall seems to have shifted over time. Anecdotal evidence suggests a delay in the onset of the summer season. For example, the peak rainfall period in South Africa was around early October in the eastern regions and from November in the western regions every year. Recent rainfall patterns have seen a three-to-six-week delay, which translates to a shift in optimal planting dates for summer grain and oilseed and subsequently in the maturing periods.

Planning difficulties

These weather shifts have been a continuous challenge for farmers in terms of planning the planting periods to coincide with peak rainfall patterns so that crops can receive sufficient moisture for seed germination and crop development. Moreover, the nature of a change in rainfall pattern is exemplified by this season’s weather conditions where rainfall is expected to remain above-normal levels until April, compared to March in a typical season.

On a positive note, this will support late-planted crops which still need moisture for development over the coming months. The key concern for late-planted areas now is the possibility of frost later in the season, as that could negatively affect crop yields. In our interaction with a couple of farmers over the weekend, this was one of the factors flagged as a key concern, particularly in late-planted areas of the Free State and North West.

Overall, the impact of improved weather conditions is illustrated by a widespread decline in SAFEX grain and oilseed prices from levels seen last month when there was no clarity as to whether farmers would be able to plant a meaningful area, or what the scale of plantings (Figure 1) would be. Looking ahead, the crop could remain in fairly good shape over the coming weeks owing to expectations of rainfall. What will be more important to keep an eye on is the first production estimates data for a summer crop and oilseed, which is due for release on 27 February. Some crop observers, such as the International Grains Council (IGC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), estimate that South Africa’s 2018/2019 maize harvest could be between 10.7 million tons and 11.5 million tons.-Wandile Sihlobo

Wandile Sihlobo, head of economic and agribusiness intelligence at Agbiz, shares highlights in his update on agricultural commodity markets. Click here for the full report on agri markets for the major commodities.

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