* Rains keep skipping drought-plagued wheat
* Cold snap not seen harming crops
* Midwest rains lift Mississippi River water level
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO, Jan 31 The chief bread-making wheat grown in the western U.S. Plains states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Nebraska is expected to continue struggling through the worst drought in over 50 years into early February and perhaps longer, an agricultural meteorologist said on Thursday.
Dry weather is expected to persist in the western U.S. Plains hard red winter wheat region and a cold snap late this week isn't likely to harm any of the winter wheat crop, said Andy Karst, meteorologist for World Weather Inc.
"There's not much rain or snow for hard red winter wheat country for the next week to 10 days," Karst said.
Winter wheat conditions across the Plains worsened in January as the drought in that key production region showed no signs of ending, according to reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) issued on Monday.
Without rain or heavy snow before spring, millions of acres of wheat could be ruined, while corn and soybean seedings could be threatened in the western Midwest, meteorologists and other crop experts have said.
A climatology report issued last Thursday said there were no signs of improvement for Kansas or neighboring farm states.
Roughly 57.64 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least "moderate" drought as of Jan. 22, an improvement from 58.87 percent a week earlier, according to last Thursday's Drought Monitor report by a consortium of federal and state climatology experts.
An updated drought report is expected to be released late on Thursday.
TEMPERATURES PLUNGE AGAIN; RIVER WATER LEVEL RISES
Wild swings in temperatures have been occurring over the past two weeks in America's heartland and another blast of Arctic air currently is moving into the crop-growing regions.
Karst said the coldest weather late this week would be in the northern Plains states of North Dakota and Minnesota with lows of 20 to 30 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) in the Red River Valley. Lows in the single digits are expected elsewhere, but "there shouldn't be any winterkill damage," he said.
Karst said rainfall in the Midwest this week boosted water levels on the Mississippi River, the main water shipping route for commodities in the United States.
The drought and lack of rainfall and/or snow melt over the winter had dropped river water levels to a point that led to restricted barge loadings and movement on the river.
"There should be no new restrictions for the next two weeks, this is the best the river has looked for a long time," he said.
However, more than 1,000 barges were backed up on the river on Wednesday after a weekend barge accident and oil spill forced closure of the river, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
There were no estimates when the oil spill would be cleared to allow normal transport of grain, oil and other commodities down the Mississippi.
(Additional by Mark Weinraub and Karl Plume in Chicago. Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Nick Zieminski)