The wheat harvest is expected to fall by 0.7% from October, to 2.15 million tons, the Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) says in its fourth production estimates for the 2023/24 season released on Tuesday.
The marginal downward revision refers mainly to the Western Cape’s crop.
Despite this, the projected overall harvest was up 2% from the past season.
South Africans consumes around 2.4 billion loaves of bread a year, or 40 loaves of bread a person a year, according to the International Trade Administration Agricultural Sector (ITA).
Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber, said the CEC data continued to paint a reasonably positive picture of South Africa’s winter crop harvest, albeit with the minor downward monthly revisions of the crop size.
“The primary issue on farmers’ minds is perhaps not crop size but the deterioration in quality following heavy floods in the Western Cape in September. The Western Cape is a significant producer of winter crops, accounting for roughly two-thirds of South Africa’s total winter crop output,” Sihlobo said.
Broadly, the provinces behind the robust national wheat harvest forecast were the Western Cape (53% of the overall harvest), the Northern Cape, the Free State and Limpopo.
The agricultural organisation said that while the Northern Cape and the Free State were among the leading wheat producers, their expected harvest was less than that of the 2022/23 season.
The expected large harvest in the Western Cape and Limpopo overshadowed the decline in harvest in other provinces. There were also likely decent wheat harvests in other provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and North West.
Sihlobo said the expected crop of 2.15 million tons was well above the 10-year average harvest of 1.80 million tons.
“If there are no significant changes in the crop forecast in the coming months, South Africa will likely need to import about 1.6 million tons to meet domestic consumption in the 2023/24 season (down from the forecast 1.68 million tons in the 2022/23 season).”
Furthermore, the 2023/24 canola crop was unchanged from October estimates and is at a record 237 450 tons (up 13% year on year). The annual increase was also due to increased plantings and expected better yields.
Regarding barley and oats, however, the CEC lowered its production forecasts by 5% and 13% from last month, to 360 220 tons and 36 200 tons, respectively.
The chief economist said the Western Cape’s recent floods damaged the crops more than wheat and canola.
“Notably, there are reportedly quality issues in barley, and the extent of it will be clear in the coming weeks.”
Overall, while the overall crop size was encouraging, and no major wheat quality issues had been reported, that remains a concern, and would influence the import requirements for the season that South Africa had at a consecutive estimate of 1.6 million tons.
“Still, it is too early to formulate a strong view on this matter. It will be some time before we start having a better sense of the wheat quality across the Western Cape’s major wheat-producing regions. For now, one could consider this matter a potential downside risk worth monitoring.”
The ITA overview, published in May, puts the grain industry (barley, maize, oats, sorghum and wheat) as one of the largest agricultural industries in South Africa, contributing more than 30% to the total gross value of agricultural production.
Maize is the largest locally produced field crop, and the most important source of carbohydrates in the Southern African Development Community region for animal and human consumption.
Wheat was produced mainly in the winter-rainfall areas of the Western Cape and the eastern parts of the Free State, with considerable annual fluctuations in production. Average wheat production has been about 1.8 million tons a year over the past five years, with local demand exceeding 3.5 million tons a year. Hence, South Africa is dependent on wheat imports to meet the demand.
The ITA said declining profit margins saw wheat farmers scaling down wheat production and switching to other crops like canola, corn, soybeans and increased livestock production.
It said the trend in wheat production had been sporadic over the past 20 years because of unpredictable weather. Without an advance in technology or policy changes, the decreasing trend in hectares planted with wheat in South Africa would continue.
South Africa’s wheat consumption is the highest in southern Africa and wheat is the second most important grain commodity consumed after maize.
The annual per capita consumption of maize, in the form of a meal, is the highest at 95kg/person, followed by wheat (56kg/person) and then rice (15kg/person).