South Africa’s next corn harvest will fall short of lofty expectations, thanks to high fertilizer prices and switch by growers to soybeans, area with which is forecast to top 1.0m hectares for the first time.

South African growers will produce 15.60m tonnes of corn in 2022-23 – a harvest up some 250,000 tonnes year on year, and elevated by historical standards, the US Department of Agriculture’s Pretoria bureau said.

However, the forecast is well below an official USDA estimate of a near-record 17.30m tonne result, reflecting waning hopes for sowings in the face of high prices of fertilizers, for which corn is a notably hungry crop.

“The sharp upsurge in the cost of farming inputs for corn farmers in South Africa intensified the risk of production in a weather dependent industry, despite record-high commodity prices,” the bureau said.

Corn production in South Africa, where weather is markedly vulnerable to the El Nina-La Nina cycle, has a history of sharp volatility, with the national average yield recovering from 3.71 tonnes per hectare in 2015-16 to 5.86 tonnes per hectare in 2015-16, for instance, only to retreat back below 5 tonnes per hectare the following year.

Corn vs soybeans

“The current high input cost environment is deterring any bullish outlook in expanding corn area, despite record high commodity prices,” with local prices of yellow corn hitting a record 4,905 rand per tonne in May.

The spot price of yellow corn on Monday stood at 4,330 rand per tonne, up 30% year on year, according to GrainSA.

Farmers will seed 2.90m hectares with corn, more than 100,000 hectares below the USDA forecast, as soybeans – which are cheaper to grow than corn, in part thanks to fixing their own nitrogen from the atmosphere – extend a long-running improvement in their popularity.

The bureau forecasts South African soybean sowings for 2022-23 at 1.01m hectares, up by 80,000 hectares year on year, and a multiple of the levels of 100,000-150,000 hectares recorded in the first five years of this century.

“The positive trend in soybean plantings will continue in the 2022-23 marketing year, affecting the expansion in corn area.

“Soybeans now represent more than 20% of the area planted with summer rainfall field crops, while 20 years ago it was a mere 4%,” said the bureau, which cites improved varieties and extra domestic crushing capacity as enhancing the oilseed’s popularity amongst South African growers.

Export outlook

The reduced corn harvest hopes will restrict South African corn exports to 2.50m tonnes in 2022-23, up by 300,000 tonnes year on year, but below the 27-year high of 3.80m tonnes shipped in 2020-21.

“South Africa should maintain its status as a net exporter of corn under normal weather conditions,” the bureau said.

Major markets for South African exports included Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam, besides regional buyers such as Botswana and Namibia.