UPDATE 1-Rains help ease U.S. drought pressure on crops

Mon Mar 11, 2013 2:28pm EDT

(Adds updated precipitation requirements to bring soils back to normal, updates graphics)

By Sam Nelson

CHICAGO, March 11 (Reuters) - Additional drought-relieving rain fell over the weekend across a broad swath of the U.S. crop region, an agricultural meteorologist said on Monday.

"There was 0.25 inch to 0.75 inch, with locally heavier amounts in most of the Plains hard red winter wheat belt," said John Dee, meteorologist for Global Weather Monitoring.

Dee said lighter amounts fell in the western third of the Plains. Most of Iowa, Minnesota and northern Missouri received 0.50 inch to 1.00 inch or more, and showers occurred early Monday in northern Illinois.

"It will be quiet this week, with light snow in the north on Friday and Saturday," Dee said. "There are mixed ideas for next week. Some forecasts have more rain, but others don't."

Commodity Weather Group (CWG) meteorologist Joel Widenor said the most notable drought relief over the weekend was in Iowa, eastern Nebraska, southern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota.

"Rains will diminish the rest of this week, allowing for some early corn seeding in the southern Delta," Widenor said. However, "showers will expand in the southern Midwest and in the Delta next week, while the Plains generally trend drier," he said.

The extended drought last summer, the worst in 50 years, slashed more than 25 percent of the projected bushels of corn to be produced per acre, cutting supplies in the United States to a current 17-year low.

Winter wheat growers in the U.S. High Plains enjoyed improved soil-moisture conditions in some growing areas as the region's drought levels continued to retreat, according to a report issued last Thursday.

Drought conditions eased because of recent snowstorms in top wheat producer Kansas and in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado, also wheat producers.

But conditions grew worse in Texas.

Altogether, eight U.S. states continued to suffer from the worst levels of drought, dubbed "exceptional" by the Drought Monitor, according to a report issued by a consortium of state and federal climatologists.

Meteorologists said the significant winter snow and rain had so far eliminated the drought conditions 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 aid the soon-to-be-seeded corn and soybean crops.

The heavy snowfall across the U.S. Midwest in late February provided hope to farmers that the 2013 crop season would return to normal after last year's drought, but a top Iowa State University scientist warns the region is not out of the woods.

"The snow is not bad news in the Corn Belt but does not give a sure sign of a shift to great crop weather conditions," Elwynn Taylor, an Iowa State climatologist told a Reuters' global chat room. "Almost everything, 85 percent, west of I-35 is still on the dry side."

He referred to the stretch of farmland from central Iowa westward to Nebraska and north to South Dakota. Those three states produce about one-third of the U.S. corn and soybean crops, with Iowa being the top crop state.

Don Keeney, a meteorologist for MDA Weather Services, said as of early March about 2 inches (5 cm) to 4 inches (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 (10 cm) to 6 inches (15 cm) of rain were 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 portions of eastern Nebraska and a swath across northern Iowa and south-central Minnesota.

Near normal soil moisture was seen in early March in roughly the southeastern two-thirds of Missouri and nearly all of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. (Reporting by Sam Nelson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Jeffrey Benkoe)