Maize is the most important grain crop produced in South Africa. According to the Crop Estimates Committee (CEC), maize production was estimated at 12,5 million tons during the 2018/19 marketing season, while production for the 2019/20 marketing season is estimated at 11,52 million tons.

Grain SA attributes the decrease in production to the difficult production season that prevailed during the 2019/20 marketing season. Plantings were delayed due to late rain, especially in the western parts of the country. Most of the maize plantings in North West and the central to western parts of the Free State, were completed later than the optimal planting window. Not only did it have a negative impact on the actual area planted, but it also affected the season’s yield potential.

“The difficult production season and the below-average crop made the local supply and demand balance sheet for the 2019/20 marketing season tight and therefore South Africa had to import maize to meet the local demand,” says Grain SA economist, Luan van der Walt.

According to estimates from the National Supply and Demand Estimates Committee, the total yellow maize imports for the 2019/20 season ending 30 April 2020 should reach 525 000 tons, of which 452 229 tons were already imported at the end of January this year. No white maize imports will be required for the season in order to meet the local demand.

Local trends

Interestingly, although the local demand for wheat has decreased gradually since the 2015/16 season, the demand for maize (especially for human consumption), has increased over the past three years, reaching new records. “It is well known from historical figures that consumers tend to fall back on a more staple-based diet, rather than a protein-based diet, during times of economic difficulty,” Luan says.

“Maize meal remains one of the most utilised staple foods for a large portion of the South African population and growth in human consumption of white maize can largely be linked to the difficult economic situation South Africa has been experiencing for the past four to five years.”

He adds that it is quite astonishing if one considers the constant challenges straining the entire South African agricultural value chain, from primary production to the retail sector. “We found that the difficult economic position in which the grain industry and consumers find themselves, has led to an increase in the local demand for maize, although it is highly unlikely that it will be a sustainable development in the long term.”

Figure 1 illustrates the monthly human consumption of white maize, monthly average white maize price and the prices of special and super maize meal on an index basis since May 2000. The trend for white maize for human consumption moved horizontally in the early 2000s before it began gaining steady momentum during 2007/08. The worldwide recession that prevailed from 2007 to 2009 had a negative impact on the South African economy, and an uptrend in maize for human consumption characterised the period.

Luan continues: “Following the recovery from the economic recession, there were a few good years, and the local maize consumption for human food purposes didn’t show significant growth until the 2016/17 season when growth in the white maize for human consumption began showing a better growth rate.

“However, over the past two to three years, we have seen an increase in white maize meal consumption, which increased white maize processing. In general terms the price trends show a clear correlation between the white maize and maize meal prices. Since the early 2000s, we have seen both maize and maize meal more or less following the same trend.

“During 2015 and 2016, South Africa was hit by one of the worst droughts in 100 years, which had a significant impact on local maize prices. The impact on the local maize price and the price of maize meal is evident in Figure 1.”

Figure 1: Index of white maize use and prices of white maize as well as special and super maize meal. (Source: South African Grain Information Service, Statistics SA and SAFEX)

General survey of conditions

The impact of the planting dates on the local maize production is evident when examining the historical trends. Therefore, Grain SA conducted a survey among farmers regarding the timing of plantings and the general production conditions for the maize that has been planted for the 2020/21 marketing season.

Below is a summary of the survey conducted in January this year when most of the plantings for the season had been completed:

  • Northern Cape: Producers mainly planted according to their intentions and within the optimal planting window.
  • Northwestern and central Free State: Rain was exceptionally late in some areas, while other areas received earlier rain. Only approximately 20% of all maize plantings were completed within the optimal planting window.
  • Eastern Free State: Approximately 80% of plantings were completed outside of the optimal planting date. In some areas, a shift from white to yellow maize has been observed.
  • North West: In some areas, the plantings could take place within the optimal planting window, while other areas of the province were on average three weeks later than the optimal planting window.
  • Eastern Cape: The province experienced severe drought conditions and the rain was very late. In some areas, good rain occurred from mid to late January and in February, while others were in desperate need of rain at the time of writing this article.
  • Limpopo: Dryland conditions were variable due to significantly delayed rain in some areas. Irrigation crops generally looked good.
  • Mpumalanga: Approximately 80% of maize was planted outside the of the optimal planting window.
  • KwaZulu-Natal: The season started later than usual due to drought, and an estimated third of maize was planted outside the optimal planting window.

Dryland versus irrigation crops

Corné Louw, senior economist at Grain SA, says it is interesting to note where and when most of the yellow and white maize in the country is produced.

Table 1 and Table 2 reflect older data on dryland and irrigation maize production in the country. He says it is unnerving that only 10% of the planted maize surface in South Africa is under irrigation, while 90% of the maize plantings rely on rain.

Table 1: Percentage of maize in South Africa on dryland versus irrigation in terms of hectares.

  Dryland Irrigation
2006/7 92% 8%
2007/8 91% 9%
2008/9 90% 10%
2009/10 91% 9%
2010/11 92% 8%
2011/12 92% 8%
2012/13 91% 9%
2013/14 92% 8%
2014/15 91% 9%
2015/16 87% 13%
2016/17 90% 10%
2017/18 91% 9%

Table 2: Percentage of maize in South Africa on dryland versus irrigation in terms of production.

  Dryland Irrigation
2007 77% 23%
2008 83% 17%
2009 81% 19%
2010 84% 16%
2011 84% 16%
2012 82% 18%
2013 78% 22%
2014 83% 17%
2015 76% 24%
2016 68% 32%
2017 82% 18%
2018 81% 19%

Market summary

Maize plantings in the main production areas were planted after the optimum planting window. “It should not be surprising that forces of nature, associated with prevailing drought, has affected South Africa’s grain and oilseeds industry adversely over the past few seasons,” says Dr Dirk Strydom, manager of Grain Economy and Marketing at Grain SA. “Growers could either plant their crops late, which can increase the risk of frost in certain areas, or not plant at all.”

International profit margins were also under pressure thanks to an increase in supply which took place at a faster rate than the increase in demand, which resulted in international maize prices equal to that of a decade ago. “Add to it rising production costs, and it leaves one with hardly any room to make mistakes.” According to Dr Strydom, it necessitated the need for growers to produce optimally, which means achieving the highest yield against the lowest input costs and optimal use of resources.

For more information, send an email to the author at carin@plaasmedia.co.za. –Carin Venter, FarmBiz