Drought slows planting to dent South Africa’s corn optimism

4 Dec 2019 | Tim Worledge

The slow pace of planting across key South African provinces is stoking fresh fears over the potential size of the country’s corn harvest, as regions either pass or approach the end of the optimal planting window with very few acres planted.

The country’s Crop Estimates Committee expects South Africa to plant 2.5 million hectares with corn this year, up nearly 10% on the previous season, which was also badly hit by a drought that pushed planting out of the optimal window.

The Free State is South Africa’s biggest corn-producing province and is expected to account for 47% of the country’s corn acreage – 1.1 million hectares – but according to industry group Grain SA, planting is only 55% complete in the core eastern region, with the optimal window already closed on November 20.

“Winds in the eastern Free State are very bad, which depletes soil moisture rapidly,” a note to clients of South African bank ABSA also warned, while heat across the region is threatening some of the plants already in the ground.

“Heat is extreme, with small maize plants starting to die… if rain does not occur within the next few days, it is expected much less hectares will be planted than originally intended,” Grain SA warned, while other big producing provinces are also well behind typical planting rates.

Planting in the northwest of the Free State is at 10%, on par with the third-biggest corn-producing province of North West, with the optimal planting window for both regions starting on November 15.

Only Mpumalanga, the second-biggest corn province, is close to completing its planting on an area the CEC estimates at 514,000 ha – 20% of the total area – according to Grain SA.

Without rain, the situation is likely to blunt hopes that relatively high domestic prices may encourage South Africa’s farmers to plant corn on more land than first estimated – with final planting dates rapidly approaching for much of the harvest.

The USDA is expecting production to hit 14 million mt in 2019/20, up 20% on the 11.75 million mt estimated in the drought-hit 2018/19 harvest.

For that season, supply worries drove domestic prices up and kicked open an arbitrage that saw South American corn producers supply 530,679 mt between January 25 and November 15.

These were the first imports into the country for almost two years, according to data from the South Africa Grain Information Service, with the loss of production threatening one of the continent’s regional supply powerbases. 

Planting of soybean is also well behind schedule, with the Free State expected to have 365,000 ha of beans planted, with 265,000 ha in Mpumalanga – collectively accounting for over 84% of the country’s bean harvest.

Planting in Free State is 35% at best but is at 85% in Mpumalanga, with current rain desperately needed to last.

“The occurrence of rain remains one of the determining factors in the choice and quantity of crops that producers will plant,” Grain SA warned.