By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A shift back to drier weather is expected in most of the key wheat growing areas of the drought-stricken U.S. Great Plains hard red winter wheat region, an agricultural meteorologist said on Wednesday.
Early in the week there had been outlooks for significant rain and/or snow in much of the region which would have given the battered wheat crop a welcome dousing, but patterns have changed to a drier mode, he said.
"There will be a storm system this weekend and another one early next week but the moisture will favor Nebraska and away from the large wheat acreage areas," said Andy Karst, meteorologist for World Weather Inc.
Karst said Nebraska may receive a half-inch of moisture with lighter amounts elsewhere in the Plains states.
"Confidence is increasing that Kansas won't see much from the weekend storm," he said.
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, according to meteorologists and other crop experts.
The unrelenting drought gripping key farming states in the U.S. Plains shows no sign of abating, and it will take a deluge of snow or rain to restore critical moisture to farmland before spring planting of new crops, a climate expert said.
"It's not a pretty picture," said climatologist Mark Svoboda of the University of Nebraska's Drought Mitigation Center.
Precipitation in the Plains region has been 3 inches to 6 inches shy of normal levels since October, and some areas are nearly 16 inches short of much-needed moisture over the last nine months, Svoboda said.
The drought that last year ranked as the worst in roughly 50 years is still entrenched in the nation's mid-section. This month was considered the worst January in terms of drought over the 13 years that a consortium of federal and state climatology experts have been monitoring drought levels and issuing regular "Drought Monitor" reports, Svoboda added.
"The January number is the highest amount of coverage for the U.S. since we've been doing this," he said.
Last week's Drought Monitor report showed severe drought still gripping 87.25 percent of the High Plains, unchanged from the prior week. Fully 100 percent of the land area in Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma remained engulfed in severe drought or worse, according to the Drought Monitor.
A new drought report is expected to be released on Thursday.
The Plains states are key crop production areas, particularly for hard red winter wheat, an important bread-making crop. They are also critical areas for cattle and other livestock production.
Overall, 57.68 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least "moderate" drought as of January 29, a slightly worse situation than the previous week's tally of 57.64 percent. Exceptional drought expanded slightly to 6.37 percent, up from 6.36 percent of the country.
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Theodore d'Afflisio)