How to prepare for an El Niño drought: Expert tips

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

As South Africa braces for the potential return of El Niño, producers across the country need to be prepared to navigate the challenges that come with this climate phenomenon. El Niño is associated with increased temperatures and low rainfall, which can significantly impact agricultural productivity.

Previous El Niño droughts led to significant losses in crop and livestock production, highlighting the importance of proactive measures. While recent seasons benefited from La Niña-induced heavy rains, the return of El Niño could resemble the bleak agricultural conditions experienced in the 2015/16 season.

To help producers adapt to the impending drought, RealIPM’s area managers have provided valuable insights and recommendations for various regions and crops. By implementing these strategies, producers can mitigate the potential effects of the El Niño drought and safeguard their agricultural operations.

The impact of El Niño

El Niño is expected to have a significant impact on South African agriculture, potentially leading to drought conditions and reduced crop yields. A large share of South Africa’s agriculture relies on irrigation, with crops such as maize, soya beans, sugarcane, and wheat heavily affected by drought conditions.

Livestock producers face challenges related to reduced grazing land, increased feed costs, and the spread of diseases in drier and warmer conditions. This could have significant implications for the country’s agriculture and food security.

“In the upcoming summer, from approximately October 2023, we do expect that producers will plan and do things differently from last year,” says Johnnie Matthew, RealIPM Free State and central area manager.

Producers need to be proactive and plan accordingly to minimise the negative consequences. The specific effects of El Niño may vary across regions, but the consensus among the area managers is that adjustments in farming practices will be necessary.

Soil management and conservation

Maintaining soil health is crucial during drought periods. RealIPM’s area managers emphasise the importance of soil conservation practices such as planting cover crops and preserving organic material. “Plant cover crops to help preserve moisture and to provide food for soil microbes,” says Matthew.

Gauteng area manager Evan Scholtz agrees: “People will be forced to accelerate their plans to incorporate cover cropping, build mulch and organic matter in their soils to ensure that they can compete with drought. If they don’t adapt they won’t survive.”

Dewald Kamffer of the Limpopo region summarises soil management as follows: “A conservative soil programme is an affordable and effective tool to increase the ability of the plant to utilise minerals from the soil; increased efficacy of the roots of the plants lead to less fertilisation (saving money), and in return, less salts are added to the root zone and surrounds.

“Taking care of the soils using these tools will increase the longevity of the crop, increase the plants’ abilities to handle unavoidable environmental stresses, and be more sustainable over the medium and long term in the unpredictable environment of export agriculture in South Africa.”

Crop selection

Producers should consider adjusting their crop selection to favour drought-tolerant varieties. “Producers may opt not to plant low-potential crops,” Matthew says. They will probably plant crops that are more drought tolerant, such as maize and sunflower as opposed to soya beans. By selecting crops that are better adapted to limited water availability, producers can increase their chances of achieving favourable yields despite the impending drought.

Water management

Efficient water management is critical during drought conditions. In regions that heavily rely on irrigation, producers should adopt measures to reduce water loss due to evaporation. Implementing mulching techniques and using biological inputs can help minimise water evaporation and improve water penetration. Furthermore, investing in technologies that optimise water usage, such as precision irrigation systems, can significantly conserve water resources.

Sustainable farming practices

RealIPM’s area managers stress the importance of sustainable farming practices as a long-term solution to combat the uncertainties of climate change. By adopting climate-smart agriculture techniques and focussing on improving soil health, producers can enhance their crop resilience and adaptability to climatic extremes.

Diversification and adaptation

To mitigate the potential risks associated with drought, producers should consider diversifying their crop portfolios. By growing a mix of crops with varying water requirements, producers can distribute the risk and increase their chances of maintaining productivity even in adverse conditions. Additionally, producers must be open to adapting their farming plans and strategies based on evolving conditions and forecasts.

Region-specific recommendations

This infographic highlights region-specific strategies for dealing with drought.

Click on the infographic to zoom in.

The best mitigation is preparation

As South Africa faces the potential return of El Niño and the subsequent drought period, producers need to be proactive in their preparation. By implementing strategies such as soil conservation, crop selection, water management, sustainable farming practices, and diversification, producers can mitigate the impact of the impending drought on their agricultural operations.

Adapting to the changing climate patterns and adopting resilient farming techniques will contribute to the long-term sustainability and success of South African agriculture in the face of climate challenges.

About Zylem

Zylem provides agricultural products and technical services aimed at improving sustainable and regenerative farming in Southern Africa. We source and manufacture biological foliar fertilisers and soil conditioners that are distributed through a variety of networks in Southern Africa.

About RealIPM

RealIPM provides the highest quality biopesticides and services to the agricultural sector to enable producers to increase their yield, decrease chemical resistance and ultimately improve overall plant and soil health.