File image: Reuters

Bothaville, South Africa - Dry weather conditions have hit the main maize growing areas in South Africa, wilting the crop and dashing prospects for better yields this year.

South Africa's provinces of Free State and North West, which together produce more than half of the country's total maize crop, have been the hardest hit by the dry conditions in recent weeks after good rains earlier in the growing season.

“Everything has changed in the last three weeks due to the lack of rain in crucial areas,” said Piet Faure, a soft commodities analyst at CJS Securities.

“Some areas look good whilst other areas look worse than last year.”

A Reuters journalist driving through the northern part of the Free State province saw wilting or dry crops, most of which were not fully developed, while irrigation pumps were seen in a few fields.

The government said last month that South Africa was likely to harvest 12.35 million tonnes of maize in 2013 after reaping 11.83 million tonnes last year.

Out of the estimated crop for 2013, a total of 7.5 million tonnes was seen coming from the Free State and North West provinces.

“There will be food in the country, but it will not be like we anticipated earlier,” Jannie de Villiers, chief executive of farmers group Grain SA, told Reuters on the sidelines of the organisation's annual meeting.

“There is definitely a lot of damage already. I am not so sure to what extent the crop will be able to recover if it receives rain in the next few days.”

South Africa is the biggest maize producer on the continent and exports to its neighbours and oversees markets such as Mexico, South Korea and Italy.

Higher maize prices last year encouraged farmers to plant more maize.

But domestic maize futures are now off the record highs of around 2,800 rand ($310) a tonne hit in 2012 as the market anticipated a better crop this year.

The most active July white maize contract was trading 0.8 percent lower at 2,254 rand a tonne as of 11:34 SA time on Wednesday. - Reuters