* Chilly temperatures hit key consuming regions, stir demand
* Milder extended weather outlook keeps buyers cautious
* Comfortable stockpiles, record production also limit gains (Adds analyst quote, weekly performance data, Baker Hughes rig data; updates prices)
By Joe Silha
NEW YORK, Oct 25 U.S. natural gas futures ended higher on Friday, bolstered by cold weather and expectations for a bullish weekly inventory report next week, but gains were capped by forecasts calling for milder temperatures late next week and into early November.
But the front-month November contract finished the week 1.5 percent lower despite closing higher in the last three sessions. With milder weather possible into early November, investors were not convinced demand for heating will stay strong enough to support prices if the recent cold shot subsides.
"Expectations for a bullish storage report next week have helped prop up prices, and there's some disagreement about the weather. Temperatures moderate later next week, but some forecasters still show mostly seasonal readings," said Steve Mosley at The SMC Report in Arkansas.
Some traders had doubts about the potential upside for prices at least until more winter-like weather was sustained, noting inventories have climbed to comfortable levels and production was still flowing at or near a record-high pace.
November gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange, which expire on Tuesday, ended up 7.8 cents, or 2.1 percent, at $3.707 per million British thermal units after trading between $3.593 and $3.725.
The front contract on Thursday posted a two-week low of $3.545 after a bearish weekly inventory report.
Chart watchers noted the nearby contract has slipped into the $3.50s several times this week, only to be propped up by buying, marking that area as decent technical support.
MDA Weather Services expected chilly temperatures to dominate the eastern half of the nation for the next five days, with below-normal readings stretching from the northern Plains to the Southeast. But the forecaster noted the six-to-15-day outlook continued to trend warmer, particularly for the Midwest.
Many traders viewed Thursday's 87 billion cubic feet weekly inventory build as bearish, noting it came in above the Reuters poll estimate of 79 bcf and well above last year's increase of 64 bcf and the five-year average gain for that week of 67 bcf.
U.S. Energy Information Administration data showed total domestic gas inventories last week stood at 3.741 trillion cubic feet, 2.4 percent below last year's record highs at that time, but 2.1 percent above the five-year average.
The storage outlook for next week was more supportive. Early injection estimates ranged from 20 bcf to 43 bcf. That would be well below the 66 bcf build seen during the same year-ago week and the five-year average increase of 57 bcf for that week.
Baker Hughes data on Friday showed the gas drilling rig count rose this week for the third time in four weeks, increasing by four to 376.
The count has risen in 11 of the last 18 weeks, stirring talk that new pipelines and processing plants may be encouraging producers to pump more gas into an already well-supplied market.
The EIA still expects U.S. gas production in 2013 to hit a record high for the third straight year.
In the ICE cash market, gas for weekend delivery at Henry Hub GT-HH-IDX, the benchmark supply point in Louisiana, gained 3 cents to $3.68, with late Hub differentials firming to 1 cent over NYMEX from a 2-cent discount on Thursday.
Gas on the Transco pipeline at the New York citygate E-TSCO6NY-IDX edged up a penny to $3.84 on the chilly weekend outlook. Chicago MC-CHICIT-IDX was 3 cents higher at $3.91. (Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and David Gregorio)