U.S. farm drought areas under pressure despite winter storms
Cool, wet late winter weather across most of the U.S. Corn Belt has raised hopes that the world's largest food exporter will rebound from last year's historic drought but experts warn that many crop and pasture areas west of the Mississippi River remain bone dry.
A series of storms in the past month brought several feet of snow and much needed moisture to the central United States, replenishing parched soils and filling low rivers just as the U.S. planting season nears. Moisture is near normal for farms east of the Mississippi River, the dividing line of the western and eastern Corn Belt. But the west has not been as fortunate.
The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, which last summer rated two-thirds of the U.S. land mass in "moderate to exceptional" drought, on Thursday showed drought areas shrank since December. But 51 percent of the country was still rated as having moderate drought conditions or worse as of March 19.
"We've certainly made a significant improvement to the agricultural drought over portions of the Midwest, particularly the Corn Belt - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and even portions of eastern Kansas and Nebraska," said Mike Hudson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"But the long-term drought is still hanging on very strongly over portions of western Kansas and western parts of the wheat belt up to the Dakotas and Nebraska," he added.
The United States for decades has been the largest exporter of wheat, corn and soybeans, with most of those crops grown in the Midwest and central Plains. Last year's drought was the worst in more than 50 years and cut into the role of the United States as the world's breadbasket, with Brazil now seen as the top soybean exporter.
Ground zero for crop watchers is now the fourth largest U.S. corn state, Nebraska, which is also a leading producer of cattle, wheat, sorghum (milo) and ethanol. More than half the state depends on irrigation to support its corn crop. Even with irrigators running around the clock last summer, corn output dropped 16 percent compared to the previous year.
"We are in much worse shape right now than we were this time last year. It's going to take an incredibly wet period for the next couple months for us to have a chance to escape the type of damage we incurred last year because we have less soil moisture to start off with," Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist, said in an interview.
"Even with normal precipitation we could see impacts as aggressive as last year because there just isn't any available moisture," he added. "We are hitting a critical time."