Snow and rain help inch U.S. crop belt out of drought
* More moisture needed to eliminate drought
* Farmers preparing to sow spring corn and soybeans
* Plains wheat begins to break from winter slumber
CHICAGO, March 15 (Reuters) - Increased rainfall and some snow are expected by the weekend and again late next week in the northern U.S. Midwest and southern portions of the region, which will add valuable soil moisture ahead of spring seedings of corn and soybeans, an agricultural meteorologist said on Friday. The extended drought last summer, the worst in 50 years, slashed more than 25 percent of the projected bushels of corn crop per acre, cutting supplies in the United States to the current 17-year low. "From 4 to 8 inches of snow or roughly 0.50 inch to 0.75 inch of moisture equivalent is expected in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin," said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA Weather Services. "It certainly will add soil moisture." Keeney also said warmer weather this week in the U.S. Plains hard red winter wheat region will be replaced by colder weather next week. "Much of the crop in the far south broke dormancy this week," he said, "but I think with the colder weather next week, there won't be much emergence (break from dormancy) from central Kansas into Nebraska." Winter snowfall and recent rains have helped add soil moisture to the drought-stricken Plains wheat and cattle-grazing region, but more rain is needed to bring soil moisture levels back to normal, Keeney and others said. Commodity Weather Group meteorologist Joel Widenor said the weekend showers and snow would ease the drought a bit in the northwestern Midwest, and showers over the next two weeks would help in the Plains. But "the southwestern Plains will rely on recent improvements in topsoil moisture to support spring growth of winter wheat," Widenor said. "Early corn seeding in the Delta and Southeast will slow occasionally due to showers and intermittent cool weather over the next two weeks, but only minor interruptions are anticipated," he said. Drought continued to retreat in many areas of the U.S. Plains as snow and rainfall replenished parched soils and gave farmers and ranchers an improved outlook for better crop and livestock conditions, according to a report issued on Thursday.
Eight U.S. states continued to suffer from the worst level of drought, dubbed "exceptional" by the Drought Monitor, a report issued by a consortium of state and federal climatologists each week. But many saw improvement.
Keeney said that as of March 9, about 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) of rain were needed in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat, to bring the state out of drought status. That was an improvement from early February when about 4 inches to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) of rain was needed. Up to 8 inches (20 cm) was needed in a pocket of severe dryness in northeastern Kansas, a big corn- and grain sorghum-growing area. Similar amounts were needed in nearly the eastern third of Nebraska. Northwest Iowa and south-central Minnesota needed from 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) to get soils back to normal moisture levels. Near-normal soil moisture was seen in most of Missouri and all of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing