Northwest Africa Grain Conditions Appear Favorable Despite Dry Winter
Current crop conditions in the cereal growing region of Northwest Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), appear to be good despite a period of dryness during December, January, and February. In this semi-arid region rainfall is the most critical yield determinant. Precipitation during the 2013/14 crop season has been mostly favorable. The periods at planting (October and November), and at green-up (March and April), are the most important times for significant rainfall. While also beneficial, winter precipitation however, is not as critical as rain received during these other stages of plant growth. Autumn 2012 rainfall was early (starting in September), frequent, and above average for most of the region. As of mid-March, rainfall has again ticked up, raising expectations of a bumper crop across the three-nation region. Dry-land wheat and barley comprise the vast majority (over 90 percent) of grains in Northwest Africa. USDA will publish its first estimate of the 2013/14 Northwest Africa grain production on May 10, 2013.
Five-Year Average Wheat and Barley Production in Northwest Africa:
Rainfall arrived in early autumn 2012, the optimal time for the region’s grain planting. Beneficial rainfall continued for several months, covering much of the sowing of the crop, its emergence, and its fall growth stage. Farmers in Northwest Africa typically hedge their risk by waiting until after rain arrives before they plant. Waiting helps them avoid wasting seeds by not planting them into dry land in case rainfall doesn’t arrive on time. When rain does arrive on-time or is early, planted area is typically expanded to its maximum extent. Because there is a lack of suitable substitute crops for this climate, weather (specifically planting rains), has a much larger effect on planting decisions than prices. Heavy rains during October, November, and December 2012 likely enticed the region’s farmers to sow fields with winter wheat (on the prime lands) and barley (on the more marginal lands) on schedule and to the maximum extent.
Winter temperatures in North Africa are climatically mild and crops typically remain in a vegetative state during the cold season, never fully entering dormancy. Temperatures were mostly near-normal from December 2012 through February 2013, and therefore largely uneventful for crops during the winter of 2012-13, with no large changes due to extreme conditions. Rainfall diminished across most of Northwest Africa during the winter months, but this moisture deficit corresponded to the period when plants demand the least amount of water.
Water becomes more critical again during early spring as plants require more water for green-up and reproduction, typically occurring during March or April. Fortunately for North African farmers, widespread rains covered the region during mid-March, providing favorable conditions for crops going into this water-demanding stage. Starting in late-February and lasting through April, spring rainfall is extremely important because as temperatures and evaporation rates rise, the possibility of drought increases.
Morocco is the largest grain producer in Northwest Africa, typically producing over one-half of the total production. Rainfall was abundant during the autumn 2012 planting season. Beneficial rain continued falling throughout winter in the northern areas of the country while slowing in the south. A high vegetation response as measured by satellite-derived vegetation indices followed the autumn rainfall after crop emergence. One of the critical time periods for crop development is during and after emergence. The high vegetation index values recorded at this time (emergence) is likely a depiction of increased crop area, higher crop density, and/or signs of a healthy and vigorous crop.
Much of northern Morocco received significant amounts of rain during the winter months and currently shows high normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) signals from the NASA MODIS satellite. High values indicate healthy vegetation. While satellite-derived plant-health indicators were very high last fall, some data, especially from southern Morocco fell significantly during the winter months. This response is the result of plants becoming stressed from low soil moisture levels after several months of minimal precipitation. The central and southern growing areas of Morocco have a large influence on overall national production. This is Morocco’s "swing" region where increased rainfall can translate into a much bigger overall crop for the country, but it is also the driest part of Morocco’s cereal growing region. These regions are frequently subject to damaging heat and drought. If adverse conditions occur, national area and production estimates can be dramatically reduced. Morocco’s grains crop is one of the first crops harvested in the new crop season, typically harvested during April and May, from south to north.
Precipitation in Morocco
Precipitation has recently increased in Morocco after a period of low rainfall during winter. A good start to the rainy season last autumn enticed farmers to maximize planted area. Spring rains will be critical for favorable yields.
NDVIs for Morocco
Satellite NDVI indices depict vegetation health in the growing regions. The higher the NDVI values, typically the better the crop condition.
Algeria has experienced average or above average growing conditions during autumn and winter. The western half of the country is showing particularly high vegetation vigor, due to the recent rainfall that occurred during late winter. Meanwhile, the NDVI in eastern areas has fallen to about average levels in response to a reduction in winter rainfall since a high in early winter. In general however, with a return of normal rains in March and April, conditions in the eastern areas should recover. The eastern half of Algeria has more than half of the country’s sown area so improved rain conditions in the east are necessary for an overall improvement for Algeria. Algeria is consistently the largest grain importer in Northwest Africa.
Precipitation in Algeria
Rainfall in western Algeria has been above average while precipitation in the east is average, and rainfall in the center has been slightly below average. Overall, conditions are quite favorable for wheat and barley.
The smallest of these three Northwest Africa countries, Tunisia, typically produces the least amount of grain. Like its western neighbors, the start to the Tunisian crop season was positive, receiving average or higher-than-average planting rains. Rainfall did taper-off during the winter months however, but if rains resume or increase during spring (March-May), conditions should improve. NDVI values, indicative of crop conditions, are near average in Tunisia. Like eastern Algeria, vegetation indices had fallen as rainfall amounts have dropped since autumn.
Precipitation in Tunisia
Precipitation in Tunisia has increased since winter but remains below average in many areas. While crop conditions appear to be good, additional spring rainfall would be beneficial.
Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD's Agricultural Production page or at PSD Online.