* Warm up and rapid plantings seen by mid-April
* Drought stress to continue in U.S. Southwest
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO, April 4 (Reuters) - Cold and wet weather in the U.S. Midwest and much of the Plains will continue to slow spring fieldwork and early corn plantings while dry weather will continue to stress wheat and grazing lands in the far Southwest Plains, an agricultural meteorologist said on Thursday.
“Temperatures will remain cold and it definitely will keep soil temperatures low, so plantings will remain behind normal,” said Don Keeney, a meteorologist for MDA Weather Services.
Keeney said temperatures would warm up dramatically by mid-April, which will allow rapid corn plantings and will boost growth of the U.S. winter wheat crop.
“Most of the east-central Plains and western Midwest will receive rains next week,” he said. However, it will remain dry in the far southwest Plains. “Not a lot of rain the next two weeks for the southwest ... Texas and southwest Oklahoma will remain dry,” Keeney said.
Commodity Weather Group (CWG) on Thursday said at least the southwestern quarter of the Plains wheat belt is still expected to remain dry and drought-stress would continue.
The worst drought in more than 50 years has left the U.S. Plains wheat crop struggling against dry soils. Rains now will help the crop get off to a better start following its break from winter dormancy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its weekly crop progress report released on Monday that 34 percent of the winter wheat crop was in good to excellent condition, down from 58 percent in that category a year ago.
Winter wheat is off to its worst start in early April in 11 years, hobbled by low soil moisture in the southern Plains, even as storms in recent weeks brought precipitation to a few areas.
Corn planting expanded in a few southern states, although soil temperatures in the core states of Iowa and Illinois remain too cold for seeding, the USDA said.
Keeney said that as of March 23, 6 to 8 inches of rain were needed to bring soil moisture levels back to normal in much of eastern Nebraska and a corner of northeast Kansas, while 2 inches to 4 inches were needed in the balance of the central Plains and western Iowa. Soil moisture levels had returned to normal in an area from eastern Iowa and Missouri eastward.
Recent snowstorms and rainfall have helped diminish drought in the U.S. Plains and other parched areas of the United States.
Eight states continued to have some areas suffering from the worst level of drought, dubbed “exceptional” by the Drought Monitor, a report issued by a consortium of state and federal climatologists each week. But those areas were shrinking.
Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen in Chicago and Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Maureen Bavdek