* Warm winter puts Illinois wheat crop at risk
* Soil moisture still seen adequate
* Warm, wet fall may have washed away fertilizer
By Christine Stebbins
CHICAGO, Feb 7 Illinois, a key farm state
in the heart of the Corn Belt, is basking in its sixth warmest
winter in 117 years -- good news for residents who have not had
to shovel snow but a red flag for some of the state's most
productive businesses: farms.
Illinois and neighboring Iowa - also in the midst of a balmy
winter - produce about a third of all the corn and soybeans
grown in the United States, the world's largest exporter of both
crops. Farmers in both states feel more comfortable when there
is a substantial snow cover to ensure adequate soil moisture
that can nurture crops through the region's hot dry summers.
Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel said soil moisture,
thanks to autumn rains, remained in good shape compared to
pockets of drought in nearby areas of the Corn Belt, notably the
high-yielding northern Iowa/southern Minnesota border area.
But this winter in Illinois has been a polar opposite of
last year's snowy, frigid season, Angel told Reuters on Tuesday.
Angel said the average temperature in Illinois for December
and January was 33.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.7
Celsius) , much warmer than the historical average of 27.2
degrees F. For January, typically the coldest month of the year,
the average temperature was 31.4 degrees F, or 6.6 F above
normal, making it the 13th warmest January on record.
Several southern Illinois locations hit a balmy 69 degrees F
last month, including Belleville, Kaskaskia and Cairo.
"It's just odd not to deal with much snow and it feels like
we are in this continuous late fall pattern," Angel said. "A big
contrast to last winter."
This winter, the usual arctic blasts have stayed north of
the central Midwest crop belt, affecting areas like Canada,
Alaska and parts of Europe most intensely, he said.
Chicago snowfall for December and January totaled just 13.9
inches, half of the 27.3 inches that fell in December and
January a year ago.
Still, he said, overall winter precipitation is near normal
thanks to the earlier rains, with Illinois soil moisture in good
shape and "not in any kind of drought" like the areas of Iowa
and Minnesota. Statewide Dec-Jan average precipitation was 1.87
inches, which is 97 percent of normal.
The eastern part of the state was the wettest, a prevalent
trend since the autumn and a fallout from La Nina, a weather
anomaly that occurs every couple years. La Ninas often bring
drier-than-normal conditions in the southern tier of the United
States and wetter-than-normal conditions in the Pacific
Northwest and the Ohio River valley, according to the U.S.
Climate Prediction Center.
But farmers will remain wary until they see heavy spring
rains or a sudden big snow like last winter's storms.
Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota account for more than 40
percent of the U.S. corn and soybean harvest. Minnesota is also
known for its spring wheat crop and Illinois is among the top
U.S. soft red winter wheat producers.
"There is some concern the about winter wheat crop," Angel
said. "We've been so mild that winter wheat has not been able to
harden off to the cold weather. If we get a batch of really cold
air at this point in the season it might be vulnerable to
Angel also noted that the warm, wet fall and winter raised
the chances that fertilizers applied during the autumn may have
been washed away and need to be reapplied in the spring.
The National Weather Service is now forecasting above normal
temperatures and precipitation for February in Illinois. The NWS
outlook for the February-March-April period also is calling for
above-normal temps for the southern half of Illinois and
above-normal rainfall statewide.