U.S. drought expands, blankets High Plains

Thu Nov 29, 2012 12:11pm EST

* 100 pct of Nebraska in severe or worse drought
    * Winter wheat farmers struggling

    By Carey Gillam
    Nov 29 (Reuters) - Drought is tightening its grip on the
central United States as winter weather sets in, threatening to
ravage the new wheat crop and spelling more hardship for farmers
and ranchers already weary of the costly and ongoing dry
conditions.
    While conditions started to improve earlier in November,
they turned harsh to close out the month as above-normal
temperatures and below-normal precipitation proved a dire
combination in many regions, according to the Drought Monitor, a
weekly compilation of data gathered by federal and academic
scientists issued Thursday.
    Forecasts for the next several days show little to no relief
and weather watchers are predicting a drier than average winter
for much of the central United States. 
    "The drought's impacts are far reaching," said Eric
Luebehusen, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, in the report.
    The U.S. High Plains, which includes key farm states of
Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas, are the hardest hit. In that
region, almost 58 percent of the land area is in extreme or
exceptional drought, the worst categories of drought. A week
ago, the tally was 55.94 percent.
    Nebraska is by far the most parched state in the nation. One
hundred percent of the state is considered in severe or worse
drought, with 77.46 percent of the state considered in
"exceptional" drought - the worst level, according to the
Drought Monitor.
    Overall, roughly 62.65 percent of the contiguous United
States was in at least "moderate" drought as of Nov. 27, up from
60.09 percent a week earlier, 
    The portion of the contiguous United States under "extreme"
or "exceptional" drought - the two most dire classifications -
expanded to 20.12 percent from 19.04 percent.  
           
    
    
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week that U.S.
farm income will drop by 3 percent this year due in part to the
ravages of the worst drought in half a century. So far, crop
insurers have paid $6.3 billion on losses this year, USDA said.
Some analysts say the still-persisting drought in the Farm Belt
will drive indemnities to $20 billion.
    On top of the crop losses in 2012, more losses are likely
for 2013 if soil moisture does not improve. The U.S. Department
of Agriculture said this week that the condition of the winter
wheat crop fell to an all-time low for late November with only 
33 percent of the new crop rated good to excellent, and 26
percent was rated poor to very poor as the plants headed into
winter dormancy.
    In South Dakota, 64 percent of the crop was rated poor to
very poor; and at least 40 percent of the wheat crop in Texas,
Nebraska and Oklahoma was also rated poor to very poor. Top
producer Kansas had 25 percent of its crop rated poor to very
poor. 
  Though light showers are possible through the Mississippi
Valley and possibly into southern Texas in the next few days,
dry, warm conditions are expected across the remainder of the
contiguous United States, the Drought Monitor said. 
   The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has
forecast warmer-than-average temperatures in much of Texas,
northward through the Central and Northern Plains and westward
across the Southwest. A drier-than-average winter is forecast
for Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and through the upper Midwest.
    

 (Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City)
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