* Rains have relieved the Pampas after Dec-Jan drought
* Gov't expects harvest of up to 22 mln tonnes of corn
By Hugh Bronstein
BUENOS AIRES, March 16 Early-planted corn in global No. 2 exporter Argentina was pummeled by a December-January drought, but later-seeded fields have since been enlivened by regular rains, the government said on Friday.
Dry, hot weather that blighted the Pampas during the dog days of the Southern Hemisphere summer chopped corn yields by 40 percent in the Bragado district of key agricultural province Buenos Aires, the Agriculture Ministry said in a report.
"This means that average yields in the district will range from 3,000 to 6,000 kilos per hectare, in the area that are still economically viable to harvest," the ministry's weekly crop progress report said.
"Except for early-planted fields, which were affected by lack of rain, the rest is in good condition in the district of Bolivar," which is also located in Buenos Aires, it said.
Argentina's government sees corn output of between 21 million and 22 million tonnes, and plans to set 8 million tonnes of that aside for domestic use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has held its estimate for Argentine corn output at 22 million tonnes after slashing it in February.
Collection of the 2011/12 crop recently began, but downpours have been bogging down harvesting machines as they try to move across fields that were bone dry only two months ago.
Argentina is also the world's No. 1 exporter of soyoil, used for cooking and in the booming international biofuels sector, and of soymeal, used as animal feed. In total, the country loads an average 200,000 tonnes of farm products per day.
The USDA chopped its 2011/12 Argentine soy estimate to 46.5 million tonnes from 48 million, after factoring in damage done by the December-January dry spell Argentina's government sees the oilseed's output at 43.5 million to 45 million tonnes.
"Late-seeded soy is developing satisfactorily, within the limitations that occurred before during and after its planting," the ministry's report said, referring to fields planted in Bragado. "Rains over recent weeks have substantially improved ground water conditions."
The world will count on Argentina's 60 million hectare (148.3 million acre) Pampas farm belt to help meet global demand for food, which the United Nations expects to double as global population grows to an estimated 9 billion by 2050.
Growers and orthodox economists complain that government interference in Argentina has stunted investment in farming. Business chides President Cristina Fernandez for increasing the state's role in the economy through measures including the imposition of export curbs on certain crops and her government's 2008 take-over of Argentina's private pension system.
But the 59-year-old leader was easily re-elected last year, bolstered by strong economic growth and popular social spending. (Reporting By Hugh Bronstein; Editing by David Gregorio)