Drought-weary wheat farmers welcome blast of snow in U.S. Plains
* Nearly a foot of snow falls on key growing areas
* More moisture needed, experts say
* Wheat crop should emerge over the next few weeks
By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The heavy winter snowstorm sweeping across the U.S. midsection was a welcomed event for U.S. winter wheat farmers worried that their drought-stricken fields were too parched to produce a healthy crop this year.
Nearly a foot or more of snow fell across key growing areas in Oklahoma and Kansas in the last 24 hours, and more was coming.
"I feel a lot better this morning," said Kansas wheat farmer Scott Van Allen, who has about 2,300 acres planted to winter wheat in south-central Kansas. "It snowed all night on us. I was getting very concerned with the lack of moisture we've had."
Ten inches of snow were reported at the Wichita, Kansas, airport by 6 a.m. CST (1200 GMT) Thursday morning, according to the Accuweather forecasting group. Roughly a foot was accumulating in the Kansas City area Thursday morning, leading city and state officials to declare a state of emergency.
"Most of the snow has been in Kansas and into Missouri so far," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the University of Nebraska Drought Mitigation Center. "With the weather and the snow we're really looking at a good shot of moisture."
Chicago Board of Trade wheat futures fell more than 2 percent to their lowest level in nearly eight months on Thursday morning due to beneficial nature of the storms for the wheat crop in the U.S. Plains.
Still, Fuchs and wheat agronomy experts said that the ongoing drought has been so pervasive that soil moisture deficits will not be replenished without several large storm systems.
"This is not going to put a big dent in the drought," said Fuchs. "The moisture is welcomed, but is it a drought-buster? No it is not. We need several more storms like this to really start turning the tide."
Kansas State University wheat agronomist Jim Shroyer agreed. A foot of snow translates to only about an inch of water for the soil, he said.
"To fill the profile you would need 10 feet of snow," said Shroyer.
Kansas is typically the top U.S. wheat producing state and Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado are also top producers. But a nagging drought has plagued the region, leaving agricultural producers struggling. Without adequate soil moisture plants either die outright, or yield poorly, if at all.
The wheat crop will be emerging soon from winter dormancy and will require good soil moisture to grow.
A report issued Thursday by a consortium of state and federal climatologists said that as of Feb. 19 more than 82 percent of the High Plains region, which includes Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, was suffering from "severe" or worse drought.
Fully 100 percent of Kansas was engulfed in severe drought or worse, the Drought Monitor report said. The report lists severe drought as the third-worst level. Extreme drought is considered the second-worst and exceptional drought is the worst level of drought. More than 36 percent of the land area in Kansas was in exceptional drought, the report said.
Back on his farm in Sumner County, Kansas, Van Allen said he was hopeful that forecasts for more snow next week would bring more beneficial moisture.
"We'll keep our fingers crossed," he said. "Everyone needs its." (Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by David Gregorio)
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