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U.S. drought areas shrinking as snow and rain fall

Karen Braun, a senior analyst for Lanworth Commodities, takes photographs of wheat during a study to determine how recent hail storms will e
Karen Braun, a senior analyst for Lanworth Commodities, takes photographs of wheat during a study to determine how recent hail storms will e

By Sam Nelson

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Crop-friendly snowfall will be moving from the U.S. Northern Plains into the central and eastern Midwest overnight Monday and Tuesday, leaving up to an additional six to eight inches of snow, an agricultural meteorologist said on Monday.

"Most of it will come tomorrow and cover northern Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky eastward," said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather.

The melting snow will add valuable moisture to dry corn and soybean areas ahead of spring planting, further shrinking the crop areas affected by last year's drought, the worst in over a half century.

Warmer weather in the drought-stricken U.S. Plains hard red winter wheat region is melting the snow that accumulated during two blizzards in late February, Keeney said.

"That is putting a lot of welcome moisture into the ground," he said. Keeney said drier weather was expected for this week, then normal to above-normal precipitation was expected in the Plains States next week.

There was not threat of cold weather damage to either the soft red winter wheat crop growing in the U.S. Midwest or the hard red winter wheat crop grown in the U.S. Great Plains.

"I don't see anything cold enough to cause any damage," Keeney said.

Commodity Weather Group (CWG) meteorologist Joel Widenor said light snow would spread from North Dakota into the Midwest early on Monday and expand over the next two days, bringing three to eight inches or more of snow from North Dakota into the Ohio Valley.

"This will offer some relief for drought areas in Minnesota, North Dakota, eastern Iowa and a larger storm will bring 0.50 inch to 1.50 inches of rain across the Plains and into Iowa and Missouri next weekend," Widenor said.

Widenor said cold air brought light frost to northern and interior western parts of the Florida citrus belt early Monday, but damaging freeze to flowering was averted.

Meteorologists said the significant winter rainfall and snow have so far eliminated the drought, the worst in 50 years in the United States, in an area roughly from Illinois eastward.

But more moisture will be needed in April and May to nurse the winter wheat crop to maturity and to aid the soon-to-be-seeded corn and soybean crops, meteorologists and crop experts have said.

Keeney said that as of early February, roughly 4 inches to 6 inches of rain were needed in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat, to bring the state out of drought status.

Up to 8 inches were needed in a pocket of severe dryness in northeastern Kansas, a big corn- and grain sorghum-growing area. Similar amounts were needed in Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Missouri and northern Illinois and Indiana.

(Reporting By Sam Nelson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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