THIS season’s winter-crop harvest in Argentina is progressing well amid a dry weather forecast for most of the next two weeks, and extremely positive harvest reports. Yields in the north were well below average, but as the harvest has moved south, yields have improved to such an extent that wheat output looks set to smash the previous production annual record.
Heavy rains last week delayed the wheat harvest in some regions, but according to the Buenos Aires Grain Exchange (BAGE), as of December 15 farmers had reaped 65 per cent of the 6.6 million hectares (Mha) planted to wheat this year. This was an 11.6 percentage-point advance on the previous week but still sits 1.4 percentage points behind the same time last year.
The BAGE wheat ratings took a spectacular jump last week to 81-per-cent good to excellent, up from 67pc a week earlier. This was on the back of yields approaching historical highs in the country’s central cropping regions. The average wheat yield harvest-to-date sits at 31.4 quintals per hectare (qq/ha) or 3.14 metric tonnes per hectare but output exceeding 45qq/ha (4.5t/ha) in recent weeks suggests an upward revision of BAGE’s 21-million-tonne (Mt) wheat production forecast is imminent.
The Rosario Grain Exchange has already increased its wheat production forecast, moving up 1.4Mt to a record 22.1Mt earlier in the month. This is up 30pc from the 17Mt harvested in 2020-21. The current USDA wheat production forecast for Argentina is 20Mt, which surprisingly remained unchanged in the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates released on December 9.
On the barley front, harvest has been delayed by persistent rains, and progress sits 18 percentage points behind the same week in 2020. Like wheat, yields have surprised to the upside once the harvest moved out of the drought-ravaged northern cropping areas. While the average yield is expected to be lower than last year, a higher planted area sees BAGE forecasting a 4.6Mt barley crop, with a strong upward bias.
Huge summer planting
Argentina’s huge summer-crop planting program is well advanced. According to last Thursday’s BAGE crop update, 47.7pc of the intended corn area has been planted up to December 15, against 55pc in the same week last year. The corn crop is generally planted in two phases with a break in November, so the crop avoids flowering in the peak of summer. Around 64pc of the early crop was planted before the break, but only 32.9pc of the late crop had been planted by mid-December, well behind last year’s pace of 47pc.
The delayed planting raises production concerns as it places greater emphasis on rainfall in the January-to-March period in a season where La Niña is building. There is concern that the summer rains may not return until mid to late March, which would be disastrous for production and export income for the world’s second-biggest corn exporter. That said, BAGE only lowered the corn ratings two percentage points to 83pc good to excellent, and left its production estimate unchanged at a record 57Mt off 7.3Mha. The current USDA forecast is 54.5Mt.
Planting of the soybean crop is progressing well, with 64.7pc completed up to Wednesday of last week, but it still lags last year’s pace of 67.8pc. The crop is rated 87pc good to excellent, up from 75pc a week earlier, and close to double the 48pc rating in the same week last year.
At this point in the season, 90pc of the crop has an optimal soil-moisture profile, down two percentage points week on week, but significantly better than the 65pc recorded on December 15 last year. While the soybean crop is more advanced than corn, its sensitivity to a prolonged La Niña event is just as significant.
BAGE may have left its production estimate unchanged in last week’s update at 44Mt, but the downside risk is growing with every week of planting delays and below-average rainfall. The latest USDA production forecast is 49.5Mt.
On Friday of last week, the Argentine Government announced a cap on the volume of corn and wheat exports in the 2021-22 export year in a fresh bid by the Peronist government to head off domestic grain
shortages and quell extremely high food inflation.
At this early stage, corn exports will be limited to 41.6Mt, while wheat exports will be restricted to 12.5Mt.
However, these numbers seem quite conservative considering a record wheat crop is currently being harvested, and a record corn crop is in the making, La Niña permitting.
Last season’s registered exports were 39.8Mt and 11.2Mt for corn and wheat respectively from national production of 52.5Mt and 17Mt. As of December 15, grain exporters had registered 15.5Mt of corn and 9.1Mt of wheat for shipment in the 2021-22 marketing year.
The agricultural sector is the engine room of Argentina’s economy and is the key source of badly needed foreign exchange reserves, especially United States dollars. Last week’s statement by President Alberto Fernández comes just one week after the government announced the relaxation of extremely controversial limits on beef exports, imposed earlier in 2021. This latest measure will certainly not be welcomed and adds to the tense relationship Argentine farmers have shared with the Fernández administration since it was elected in late 2019.
While government intervention in grain and beef markets is common in Argentina and may work in the short term, history shows that such restrictions imposed over a longer period tend to discourage production, leading to domestic supply shortages and higher prices for agricultural produce.