Navigating agricultural challenges: Drought conditions and market dynamics in SA’s agri-sector

South Africa's 2023/24 summer grain production is under pressure due to heat stress and dry conditions across much of the summer planting regions. File: Photo

South Africa's 2023/24 summer grain production is under pressure due to heat stress and dry conditions across much of the summer planting regions. File: Photo

Published Jun 10, 2024


By Karabo Mabuza

South Africa's 2023/24 summer grain production is under pressure due to heat stress and dry conditions across much of the summer planting regions. The dry conditions are being driven by El Niño weather patterns, which have brought reduced rainfall and spiking temperatures during the latter part of February and most of March, which is a critical summer growing season.

Grains Sector Challenges

The recent drought conditions have significantly impacted South Africa’s grains sector, particularly affecting the production of summer grains. The Crop Estimates Committee reports a projected decrease in total grain and oilseed production by approximately 20% from the previous year.

Specifically, white and yellow maize harvests are estimated to be 6.4 million tons (down 25% year-over-year) and 6.9 million tons (down 12% year-over-year), respectively. Grain prices have since been supported. These reductions are primarily due to the adverse effects of drought and high temperatures associated with the El Niño weather pattern, highlighting the vulnerability of the grains sector to extreme weather events.

Livestock Sector Challenges

The drought has not only impacted crop production but also the livestock sector. Currently, beef and weaner calf prices are lower than usual due to dry conditions and potentially going to impact grazing. As a response, producers are reducing herd sizes to manage the scarcity of feed through the winter. This reduction has driven down cattle prices.

Additionally, the drought negatively affects the summer crop growing season, causing producers to hesitate in retaining or expanding herd sizes due to concerns about future feed grain availability.

This drought situation is distinct to this season alone and did not carry over from the previous year, during which there was ample grazing thanks to a favourable rainy season. The drought conditions are being influenced by the El Niño weather pattern that has brought hot and dry conditions to much of the country.

Winter Planting Conditions

The recent rains in the Western Cape are likely to be beneficial in replenishing dams, which is good news for grain farmers now heading into the winter planting season. The improved dam levels from recent rainfall will be welcomed by these farmers looking ahead to the winter planting season.

Climate Expectations

The South African Weather Service (SAWS) predicts below-average rainfall for most of South Africa during the late autumn and early winter periods. However, regions like KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, and the Free State are expected to experience above-average rainfall during this time. There is an increased risk of water logging in areas receiving excessive rainfall that can cause crop damage.

On the other hand, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI)’s forecasts suggest the likelihood of a La Niña event re-emerging this spring. IRI indicate that the 2010/2011 La Niña event demonstrates that such a short turnaround can happen, and computer models have been consistently predicting La Niña as more likely than either El Niño or neutral conditions. The La Niña climate pattern typically brings above-average rainfall to parts of South Africa, which can greatly benefit key agricultural areas.

However, forecasters normally warn that ENSO forecasts are usually only found to be reliable from July onwards, so there is still great uncertainty in the outlook. These developments demonstrate the need to pay attention to the changing environment within which farmers operate under, especially for development institutions such as Land Bank.

It is encouraging that the bank in its operations takes the environmental issues serious. This is demonstrated by the fact that already in 2013, the Land Bank joined the UNEP FI, and in February 2018, it was invited to partake in the UNEP FI Principles for Responsible Banking (PRB) project, aligning with its role as a leading South African Agricultural Development Bank deeply integrated with the natural environment.

Karabo Mabuza is an Agricultural Economist in the Agriculture Economics and Advisory division of the Land Bank. Please follow the Land Bank on: @Land and Development Bank of South Africa; LinkedIn: @Land and Development Bank of South Africa