* U.S. eastern Corn Belt rebounds from drought, west dry
* Ground zero for drought watch: Nebraska
By Christine Stebbins
CHICAGO, March 22 Cool, wet late winter weather
across most of the U.S. Corn Belt has raised hopes that the
world's largest food exporter will rebound from last year's
historic drought but experts warn that many crop and pasture
areas west of the Mississippi River remain bone dry.
A series of storms in the past month brought several feet of
snow and much needed moisture to the central United States,
replenishing parched soils and filling low rivers just as the
U.S. planting season nears. Moisture is near normal for farms
east of the Mississippi River, the dividing line of the western
and eastern Corn Belt. But the west has not been as fortunate.
The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, which last summer rated
two-thirds of the U.S. land mass in "moderate to exceptional"
drought, on Thursday showed drought areas shrank since December.
But 51 percent of the country was still rated as having moderate
drought conditions or worse as of March 19.
"We've certainly made a significant improvement to the
agricultural drought over portions of the Midwest, particularly
the Corn Belt - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and even
portions of eastern Kansas and Nebraska," said Mike Hudson, a
meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"But the long-term drought is still hanging on very strongly
over portions of western Kansas and western parts of the wheat
belt up to the Dakotas and Nebraska," he added.
The United States for decades has been the largest exporter
of wheat, corn and soybeans, with most of those crops grown in
the Midwest and central Plains. Last year's drought was the
worst in more than 50 years and cut into the role of the United
States as the world's breadbasket, with Brazil now seen as the
top soybean exporter.
Ground zero for crop watchers is now the fourth largest U.S.
corn state, Nebraska, which is also a leading producer of
cattle, wheat, sorghum (milo) and ethanol. More than half the
state depends on irrigation to support its corn crop. Even with
irrigators running around the clock last summer, corn output
dropped 16 percent compared to the previous year.
"We are in much worse shape right now than we were this time
last year. It's going to take an incredibly wet period for the
next couple months for us to have a chance to escape the type of
damage we incurred last year because we have less soil moisture
to start off with," Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist,
said in an interview.
"Even with normal precipitation we could see impacts as
aggressive as last year because there just isn't any available
moisture," he added. "We are hitting a critical time."
This weekend another storm is expected to move through the
center of the country, dumping up to a foot of snow in a stretch
from Kansas to southern Indiana. Melted precipitation would be
one-quarter to one-half inch of moisture, amounts far below what
is needed to replenish soils, climatologists say.
Nebraska monitors soil moisture at 50 stations across the
state. Late winter storms provided enough precipitation to help
soil moisture 12 inches deep in east central and south east
Nebraska, Dutcher said, but soils remain rock hard two feet
below the surface.
"As you move north and west of this area most locations have
less than an inch of available moisture," Dutcher said.
While 96 percent of Nebraska is still rated in extreme to
exceptional drought, South Dakota and Kansas are under similar
stress. Two-thirds of South Dakota and Kansas - major wheat,
corn and cattle states - are in extreme to exceptional drought.
The most immediate impact of the continued dryness is on
pastures for cattle to graze and on the hard red winter wheat
crop - the main U.S. bread wheat -- as it comes out of dormancy.
Kansas has had 70 percent of normal precipitation since
September, which comes on the heels of last summer's drought.
"What you are seeing is mainly surface improvement, but it's
not enough to sustain even the wheat crop for its final maturity
and certainly not enough to do anything for the spring crops
like corn or soybeans or milo. We'll take it but we've got a lot
more improvement to go," said Kansas climatologist Mary Knapp.
Iowa, the top U.S. grain state, has seen moisture but its
northwest corner remains rated in severe to extreme drought.
WEST VERSUS EAST
Unlike the western Corn Belt, soil moisture east of
Mississippi River has largely recovered.
"For Illinois we are in really good shape right now thanks
to late season winter storms that brought us a little extra
moisture, either snow or rain," said Jim Angel, the state
climatologist for Illinois, the second biggest grain state.
"The state as a whole is two or more inches above average
for this year through this date. We were about two to three
inches below average last year. It's a night-and-day difference
between the two winter time experiences."
"The only thing we can say with some degree of certainty is
we're going to have a slower start to the growing season," Angel
said, citing current cold soil temperatures.
So Nebraska remains the focus of 2013 drought fears.
The state would need to see 150 percent of normal rain over
the next six weeks, equating to six to seven inches of rainfall
in the east and four to five inches in the west, Nebraska
climatologist Dutcher said.
"The precipitation events that have occurred recently are
encouraging. Unfortunately the impacts of the 2012 drought year
pulled all moisture out of the profile. So the only moisture we
have going for us is right at the surface," Dutcher said.
Dutcher added that he was also concerned about snowpack in
the Rocky Mountains, which may reduce river-based irrigation.
"Perfectly timed rainfall in an aggressive pattern for the
next six weeks can bring us back up to where we feel comfortable
that we would have a decent chance of hitting average yields,"