CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the throes of a historic drought in the United States, a government agency said on Wednesday that it broke a heat record in July that had stood since the devastating Dust Bowl summer of 1936.
Reeling from widespread crop damage in July, Midwest farmers found some comfort on Wednesday in forecasts for rain over the next 10 days, a prospect that could take the edge off rising grain prices and concerns of food inflation worldwide.
The scorching month of July turned out to be the hottest month in the continental United States on record, beating the hottest month recorded in July 1936, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.
The January-to-July period was also the warmest since modern record-keeping began in 1895, and the warmest 12-month period, eclipsing the last record set just a month ago. It was the fourth time in as many months that U.S. temperatures broke the hottest-12-months record, according to NOAA.
Analysts expect the drought, the worst since 1956, will yield the smallest corn crop in six years, which has fed record-high prices and tight supplies. It would be the third year of declining corn production despite large plantings.
Drought and heat fed each other in July, according to Jake Crouch, a scientist at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.
"The hotter it gets, the drier it gets, the hotter it gets," Crouch said, explaining that dry soils in the summer tended to drive up daytime temperatures further.
Weather forecasts on Wednesday for some rains and cooler temperatures in the drought-stricken U.S. Midwest crop belt may provide relief for some late-season soybeans, but the change in the weather is arriving too late to help the already severely damaged corn crop, crop analysts said.
"It's definitely better than what we've had but I'd be hesitant to call it a drought-buster. Longer-term outlooks still look like a return to warm and dry," Jason Nicholls, meteorologist for AccuWeather, said of the weather outlook.
Nicholls said 0.25 inch to 0.75 inch of rain, with locally heavier amounts, was expected in roughly 75 percent of the Midwest from Wednesday through Friday morning, with a similar weather system expected next week.
"No major changes from the theme. There might be a little less rain for southeast Iowa tonight and tomorrow but increased rain in Missouri. There is a little more rain for the weekend in the northwest," said Drew Lerner, a meteorologist for World Weather Inc.
Temperatures in the 80s (degrees Fahrenheit) are expected in the Midwest for the next several days, rather than the 90s F and low 100s F that have been slashing corn and soybean production prospects in the world's largest grower of those key crops.
The crops provide the main rations for livestock from dairy cattle to chickens, so soaring grain prices will put upward pressure on consumer staples like milk and cheese, beef, fish and poultry. Many producers have already started culling the size of their herds to save money and avoid ruinous losses.
Corn and soybeans also feed into dozens of products, from biofuels like ethanol to starch, edible oils and lubricants.
U.S. corn prices have soared more than 50 percent over the past two months, hitting a record high on July 20. Soybeans, planted later than corn, rose more than 20 percent over the same period and set a record high on the same day.
Harvest-time delivery prices have slipped about 7 percent with light rains across parts of the Midwest over the last two weeks which analysts said could help the crop at a time when it was filling pods. The rains were seen as coming too late for the corn crop that has passed its key pollination stage of development when final yields are largely set.
At the Chicago Board of Trade, grain prices initially eased on Wednesday and then bounced higher.
The government will make its first estimate of the fall harvest on Friday. It already has cut projections for corn yields by 12 percent due to hot, dry weather in the Farm Belt.
The drought has wended its way into election year politics.
President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to pass a farm bill that will send disaster aid to more farmers and ranchers. He said the administration will do all it can to alleviate the impact of the drought.
"It is a historic drought and it is having a profound impact on farmers and ranchers all across many states," Obama said.
With the U.S. election three months away, Obama said Congress needed to complete work on a new five-year farm bill. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, unable to pass a farm bill, proposed a $383 million disaster package for livestock producers before adjourning for the summer.
The president said he hoped lawmakers get an earful from their constituents during the five-week recess away from Washington and that they reconvene on September 10 prepared to complete work on a farm bill "immediately."
Writing by Peter Bohan; editing by Mary Milliken and Sofina Mirza-Reid