KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A dire drought that has plagued Texas and parts of Oklahoma expanded across the key farming state of Kansas over the last week, adding to struggles of wheat farmers already dealing with weather-ravaged fields.
Harvest in Kansas, the top U.S. wheat-growing state, is set to begin within weeks. But a report issued Thursday by a consortium of climatologists said the three most severe levels of drought spread across the state over the last week, with the most dire conditions concentrated in the key wheat-growing south-central and southwest parts.
"It is pretty bad," said Kansas state climatologist Mary Knapp. "For a lot of these areas... the last significant rainfall was in July of last year."
Kansas now has 50 percent of the state suffering severe levels of drought or worse, up from 41 percent last week, according to the Drought Monitor report. Just three months ago, less than 4 percent of Kansas was suffering severe drought or worse.
The drought is eroding production potential at a time when every bushel counts.
"This is a concern. You are seeing that drought move its way northward," said Mark Svoboda, climatologist with the University of Nebraska and the National Drought Mitigation Center.
"Along with the U.S., France, and China all are experiencing some pretty nasty drought that is going to have a major global impact on commodities, wheat in particular," said Svoboda.
Wheat harvest is underway and production is expected to be curtailed substantially because of the drought.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 11 forecast that Kansas would harvest 261.8 million bushels of wheat this summer, down from 27 percent from a year ago. The Texas and Oklahoma wheat crops are forecast to fall more than 50 percent because of the drought, causing the overall U.S. winter wheat crop to be estimated as the smallest in five years.
Severe drought stress can be easily seen in many Kansas fields, which typically produce hard red winter wheat, the chief bread-making type.
Thin stands and dying wheat "heads" are part of the severe stress seen in many fields, said Kansas State agronomist Jim Shroyer who was surveying wheat fields in the western part of the state on Thursday.
Record heat that burned through the state from May 8-10 only made the situation worse, Shroyer said.
Wheat futures prices have surged because of the production shortfalls. Chicago Board of Trade wheat futures have jumped nearly 20 percent over the last week and hit a three-month high this week on worries the drought will harm the U.S. wheat crop.
Texas, suffering its longest dry spell on record, remained the epicenter for the persistent U.S. drought. The highest level of drought -- dubbed "exceptional" by climatologists -- move from 47.56 percent to 47.87 percent of the state, according to the consortium's Drought Monitor report.
That level is "unprecedented," according to Svoboda.
Overall levels of severe and extreme drought dipped, but remained a problem for more than 80 percent of Texas.
Even as farmers and ranchers continued to suffer damages to crops and livestock in the Southern Plains, farmers to the north and east saw rain relief over the last week.
Rains fell on drought-stricken portions of central and eastern Texas and central Oklahoma, as well as on already saturated middle Mississippi, Tennessee, and through the Ohio Valley, the Drought Monitor report said.
If good soaking rains like those don't find their way through the heart of the Plains, many more farmers will suffer, said Svoboda.
"Right now it is wheat, but if it continues to push north then you get into corn and bean territory. Farmers, they have a lot working against them," he said.
Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio