A dead cow lies on the banks of the dried-up Black Umfolozi River in Ulundi, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. Picture: Shiraaz Mohamed

Johannesburg - Koos Dafel parked his truck next to the rotting corpses of cattle on his farm in South Africa, in the grip of its worst drought in 23 years, and looked at them helplessly.

“My cattle are suffering,” said Dafel, 59, on his land in the north-eastern Mpumalanga province. “There is just too little to eat.”

It is not only livestock that are distressed. The drought is thwarting efforts to grow crops including corn, which is used to feed animals and make a staple food known locally as pap. The crop Dafel sowed in the first half of October has failed, forcing the fourth-generation farmer of more than three decades to plant his fields for a second time in less than two months.

Livestock and grain producers such as Dafel are trying to cope with the effects from the worst drought since 1992, brought about by the El Nino phenomenon that has decimated grazing and crops since the beginning of the year. The lack of rain is forcing farmers to slaughter animals and curtail planting, risking shortages of staple foods in a nation whose economy narrowly missed falling into a recession this year.

Cattle fertility

This year’s drought is affecting fertility in the cattle-mating season as fields are dry and grasses too short for them to graze, and next season’s conception rate will decrease by 50 percent, according to Dafel.

“The cows are in bad condition - they are skinny, very very skinny, they will not accept the bulls,” he said.

Farmers may slaughter 36 percent more cattle this year than planned as they raise cash for feed and protect grazing, according to the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation. The national cattle herd is about 13 million, 2.2 million of which get butchered yearly. In this period, an extra 800 000 may have to be culled in KwaZulu-Natal province alone, the region where the drought has killed an estimated 40 000 cows. While this extra supply could temper prices for now, shortages will start occurring from the second quarter of 2016, according to GWK, which trades in meat, grains and farm supplies.

Local prices of yellow corn, used mainly as animal feed, have surged 59 percent since the start of the year, reaching R3 480 a metric ton on December 11, the highest since August 1996 in Johannesburg. The white type has increased 94 percent as the dry weather disrupts planting.

“The current severe drought in the country could increase maize imports to the largest volume ever imported,” Fanie Brink, an independent agricultural economist, said by e-mail. “If the main production areas do not receive very good rain this month and adequate follow-up rains in January and February next year, it could be quite possible that between 4 and 5 million tons of corn will have to be imported.”

While corn producers indicated as far back as September that their intended plantings of 2.55 million hectares this season will be the lowest since 2011, the crop may be even smaller due to a lack of rain. The best window to sow corn in the biggest growing areas toward the west will end this month, yet actual plantings are as little as 11 percent of the intended hectares in some provinces due to dry conditions, Wandile Sihlobo, an economist at farmers’ lobby group Grain SA, said by phone on Thursday.

Whether plantings will finish, rides on the accuracy of the Virginia-based Centre for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies’ precipitation forecasts of 30mm to 70mm until Christmas, Sihlobo said.

“The optimal time has been squeezed,” he said. “The guys can still plant, but the forecast rains must materialise because it is extremely dry.”

Bloomberg