* Moisture easing stress from 50 year drought
* More rain and/or snow needed to end drought
* Big snow and rains seen for Plains and west Midwest
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Crop-friendly rain and snow is blanketing much of the drought-stricken U.S. Plains hard red winter wheat region and the dry western Midwest, an agricultural meteorologist said on Wednesday.
“Widespread coverage of the Plains and western Midwest will occur in the next two days, including 10 to 18 inches of snow in much of southern Nebraska, Kansas and northern Missouri,” said Commodity Weather Group meteorologist Joel Widenor.
Widenor said a second storm would arrive Sunday and Monday and focus just a bit further north but would bring more beneficial moisture.
“This will put a decent dent in long-term moisture deficits for drought areas,” Widenor said. While cold air damage threats are low, the cold and snowy pattern will put stress on early calving in Nebraska and Kansas over the next 10 days, he said.
The chief bread grain hard red winter wheat crop grown in the U.S. Plains soon will break from its winter slumber and enter its rapid growth stage of development. At the same time, farmers are itching to get into corn fields to plant what could be a record crop, assuming big spring rains bring soil moisture reserves back up to normal.
Harsh drought conditions persisted in U.S. farm states over the winter but some improvement was beginning to surface thanks to recent rain and snow, climate experts said late last week.
The key farming states in the High Plains region remain drought-stricken, according to the weekly Drought Monitor report issued by a consortium of state and federal climatologists, although improvement was noted with severe or worse levels of drought at 82.51 percent of the region, down from 87.25 percent a week earlier.
A new weekly drought monitor report is expected to be released on Thursday.
Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather, said that as of early February, roughly 4 inches to 6 inches of rain is needed in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat, to bring the state out of drought status. And up to 8 inches is needed in a pocket of severe dryness in northeastern Kansas, a big corn and grain sorghum growing area.
Similar amounts are needed in Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Missouri and the northern reaches of Illinois and Indiana.
Significant winter rainfall and snow has eliminated the drought for now in an area roughly from Illinois eastward, according to Keeney.
The Senate Agriculture Committee was told on Thursday that 56 percent of the contiguous United States was under moderate to exceptional drought, twice the usual amount. (Reporting By Sam Nelson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)