Head start for KZN

2009-02-06 00:00

The year started off well with a request from our Australian friends to take them to the Kgalagadi National Park, previously the Kalahari Gemsbok Game Park, that borders on Namibia and Bots-wana.

The rains were generally late over most of the country so plant-ings were also late. However, KwaZulu-Natal definitely has a head start over most of the maize belt.

In January maize should be flowering, but through the Free State much of the maize is only a few centimetres tall with the occasional earlier planted maize being more developed and a few irrigated areas looking good. There are some noticeably large areas that are not planted at all.

It is much the same through the former Transvaal with a greater area of well-advanced irrigated maize. Some of this maize is already producing cobs for the lucrative green mealie market, especially for the dense population on the Witwatersrand.

From Johannesburg to Vryburg, the maize deteriorates in size as rainfall slows moving west. What is surprising is that the maize is dark green, which indicates that nitrogen is freely available to the plants.

With the high fertiliser prices late last year, I expected to see weak yellow plants due to reduced fertiliser application. This is not the case, as all the plants are small but strong. Towards Vryburg, the maize has been replaced with sunflowers to a certain extent, but these vary in size from only 300 millimetres to 1 000 millimetres high in varying levels of seeding. Nevertheless, the yields in this area are going to be down.

The veld in the Vryburg area is looking good and at Kuruman it is magnificent. There have obviously been good rains in the area. Between Kuruman and Upington the rain must have stopped almost entirely because any grass that is standing is pretty dormant. There are no new shoots.

Around Augrabies Falls there are huge areas that have been planted to vines that are irrigated from the Orange River. The grapes are just ripening and they are being harvested. We travelled 400 kilometres north to the Mata Mata camp in the Kgalagadi and the same dry, thirsty land continues. The Auob River, passing the Mata Mata camp on its way into Namibia, seldom flows and in the wide river bed there is very little in the way of grass except for the occasional green tinge which is soon removed by the springbok and gemsbok that thrive in this desert.

On our return home we took a short cut on a gravel road from south of the game reserve through the farming town of Vanzylsrus. This is tough farming country and the farmers are also tough. After we had burst a tyre on the gravel road the garage owner pleasantly informed us that “in this country we use size 154 tyres and not 155. You will have to go to Kuruman for that size.” Kuruman is 180 kilo-metres away.

From Vanzylsrus to Kuruman the veld was again in magnificent condition — far better than I had ever seen. In the drought area, west of VanZylsrus, you would probably need about 100 hectares of veld to carry one cow, while outside of Kuruman it could be as little as five hectares or even fewer this year.

When we drove into KwaZulu-Natal, I realised that agriculturally we are lucky on the eastern seaboard of Africa with our good rainfall and soils. Let us make the most of them.

From my observations on this trip it appears that the area planted to maize may be considerably less than last year and the yields substantially lower because of the late rains. Even with the good recent rains in the maize triangle we will not make the record yields of this past year and we will be lucky to meet the nine million tons that is required annually.

Our Australian friends from Albany in South-West Australia, where it gets pretty cold, had been praying for more global warming but after experiencing Mata Mata they were quite pleased to return to their own cool spot. The beautiful pictures of game in Kgalagadi National Park are theirs.

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