/ 4 March 2024

Summer crop harvest forecasts down notably from last year

Grain Exports
A truck driver secures a cover over his cargo of corn maize after loading it from a cargo ship at the city port in Cape Town. File photo by Halden Krog/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The excessive heat and scant rains across South Africa are a significant concern for farmers, particularly in the summer grains and oilseed-producing regions. 

The 2023-24 summer crop season started on favourable footing. We received widespread rains, which was unusual in an El Niño season that would typically start with drier weather conditions. Those good early-season rains led us to believe the country would have a decent harvest in the 2023-24 production season. 

But this view has now changed. We worry about possible poor harvests if there is no widespread rain within the first two weeks of March. 

The Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) also fears the possible decline in the summer grains and oilseed harvest. Its first production estimate for the 2023-24 season placed the summer grains and oilseed harvest at 17.4 million tonnes, down 13% year-on-year. This is a function of the expected lower yields in some regions.

A closer look at the data shows that white and yellow maize harvest could, respectively, be seven million tonnes (down 17% year-on-year) and 7.3 million tonnes (down 8% year-on-year), thus placing the overall maize production estimate at 14.3 million tonnes (down 13% year-on-year). 

The challenge for maize is the possible poor yield in some regions because the area plantings are higher than the 2022-23 season. While this expected harvest is significantly lower than the previous season, if it materialises, it would still meet South Africa’s annual maize consumption of roughly 12 million tonnes, and the country would remain a net exporter of maize, although a much lower volume than the previous years.

The 2023-24 soybean harvest is estimated at 2.1 million tonnes, down 23% year-on-year. This decline is a function of moderately lower area plantings and possible yield decline in various regions. Similarly to maize, a harvest of this size would still keep South Africa a net exporter of soybeans.

The sunflower seed harvest estimate is 671 100 tonnes, down 8%year-on-year. The area plantings are moderately up from the previous year, which means the major concern is possibly lower yields. The 2023-24 groundnut harvest estimate is 64 395 (up 22% year-on-year), sorghum is at 110 780 tonnes (up 17%), and dry beans are at 59 880 tonnes (up 19%).

Overall, much of the crop prospects’ damage occurred in February 2024. The significance of February cannot be overemphasised in South Africa’s agriculture. Summer grains such as maize, sunflower seed, and soybeans are usually in pollination stages in February. 

The crop should ideally have higher moisture levels during this pollination stage to boost yields. The crop has entered this growth stage with limited moisture across the major growing regions in Free State, North West and Mpumalanga. 

In conversations with farmers and agricultural analysts, the consensus was that the last two weeks of February were critical for the crop. We now hope that within the first two weeks of March there could be widespread showers. This means South Africa must receive widespread rains this week or next week for the crop to recover from its current worrying state. 

The concern is that the majority of the crops are rain fed. The irrigation regions of summer crops will benefit from the better dam levels. Still, only about 20% of maize and 15% of soybeans are under irrigation. 

It is unclear how much of the current heat strain on crops the Crop Estimate Committee has factored into these estimates.

Perhaps 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. 

Wandile Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University’s department of agricultural economics. His latest book is A Country of Two Agricultures.