Snow and rain shrink drought area of U.S. crop belt
* Light snow on Friday with more to come next week
* Back-to-back February blizzards boost wheat crop prospects
CHICAGO, March 1 (Reuters) - Light snow fell in much of the drought-stricken U.S. Plains and Midwest crop region early Friday with a bigger storm forecast for late next week, shrinking the area hit by the worst dry spell in 50 years. Agricultural meteorologists said on Friday that the more significant storm forecast for next week and early the following week will bring more needed moisture to the central and southeast Plains, Delta, southern and eastern Midwest. "It will cover much of the Plains and the dry areas in the Midwest," said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather. Keeney said the heaviest snowfall would occur in west central Nebraska, northwest Kansas and eastern Colorado but the rain would extend into the southern Plains areas including Okahoma and Texas. He said normal precipitation was expected in the second week of March in the central and eastern Midwest, but it would be drier in the Plains. Commodity Weather Group said on Friday that about 2 inches (5 cm) to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow would scatter from the Northen Plains into the eastern Midwest by Monday. "This could bring some slight moisture improvements to the Dakotas, southern Minnesota and northern Iowa," said CWG meteorologist Joel Widenor. He said a slighter wetter forecast is seen for Nebraska and Iowa and moisture amounts will be a bit heavier than expected earlier in the Plains ranging from 0.25 inch (0.6 cm) to 1.25 inches (3.2 cm). The much-needed moisture comes on the heels of two blizzards that slammed into the Plains hard red winter wheat region in late February, dumping up to 20 inches (51 cm) of snow or up to 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) of moisture in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandle wheat belt. The blizzards boosted wheat crop prospects but also hampered cattle feeding operations with feedlot managers reporting weight losses of up to 100 pounds per animal. Meteorologists said the significant winter rainfall and snow have so far eliminated the drought, the worst in 50 years in the United States, in an area roughly from Illinois eastward. But more moisture will be needed in April and May to nurse the winter wheat crop to maturity and to aid the soon-to-be-seeded corn and soybean crops, meteorologists and crop experts have said.
Keeney said that as of early February, roughly 4 inches (10 cm) to 6 inches (15 cm) of rain were needed in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat, to bring the state out of drought status. Up to 8 inches (20 cm) were needed in a pocket of severe dryness in northeastern Kansas, a big corn- and grain sorghum-growing area. Similar amounts were needed in Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Missouri and northern Illinois and Indiana.
(Editing by Grant McCool)