By Tanisha Heiberg
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African farmers intend to plant 25 percent more hectares of maize this season in the hope that decent rainfall will ease the hardship caused by last year's scorching drought, a Reuters' poll showed on Monday.
South Africa's Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) is expected to say farmers plan to sow 2.44 hectares with maize, up from the 1.947 million hectares planted last year, according to an average estimate of five trading houses surveyed by Reuters. The range was 2.14 million to 2.7 million hectares.
The CEC will give its first forecast on intentions to plant on Wednesday for the 2016/17 maize growing season, which has already started on the eastern edge of the maize belt.
"We believe this year the farmers will get enough rain to plant 2.7 million hectares," said one trader.
An El Nino weather pattern, which ended in May, brought severe drought with blistering temperatures last season.
The CEC has pegged last season's harvest at 7.5 million tonnes, 25 percent smaller than the 9.95 million tonnes reaped the previous year but higher than initial expectations when the drought was really biting.
Another poor maize harvest would have serious implications for Africa's most industrialized economy after white maize, the staple food, doubled in price last year, fuelling inflation.
The main white maize contract is down about 30 percent from record peaks over 5,200 rand a ton scaled in January, but at 3,750 rand a ton is still high by historical standards and could give grain farmers added incentive to spend money planting a bigger area.
Despite the El Nino weather pattern dissipating, drought conditions are still afflicting much of the country and temperatures are expected to remain above normal until mid-summer, the national weather service said earlier this month.
But longer-range forecasts hold out hope for more rain this season and recent days have seen welcome showers over parts of the parched maize belt.
(Editing by Ed Stoddard and David Evans)