By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO, April 2 (Reuters) - Last month was the warmest March on record across half of the United States with summer-like temperatures providing some welcome news to the country's farmers and clothing retailers, a weather expert said on Monday.
Forecasters predicted April could be another warmer-than-normal month, though they said temperatures were likely to fluctuate in a more seasonal pattern in the first half of the month and that fewer records would be shattered.
Accuweather.com said cities in more than 25 states, as well Washington, D.C., broke records for average daily temperatures last month, including Chicago, Oklahoma City, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Detroit.
New York City and Philadelphia both came within 0.4 degrees of beating existing records for average temperatures in March.
Albany, New York took the prize for breaking the oldest temperature record on the books, according to Accuweather.com. Its average daily temperature in March was 45.9 degrees, breaking a record of 44.4 degrees set in 1859, the private weather forecasting firm said.
St. Louis also broke a longstanding record, according to the National Weather Service, enjoying its warmest March since record-keeping started in 1874.
The average temperature in St. Louis in March was 61.1 degrees, the Weather Service said, soaring past the former record of 57.7, set in 1910.
The unusually warm temperatures allowed farmers in the country's Corn Belt to plant 3 percent of this year's corn crop before the traditional April 1 start to the planting season, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Monday, matching the fastest pace on record.
The USDA report did not show how much corn was planted in Iowa, the country's top producer. But planting in Illinois, which usually produces the second largest amount of corn, was 5 percent complete by the end of the month, the department said.
Cropcast Ag Services, a private forecasting company and division of MDA EarthSat Weather, predicted March "will surely go down as one for the ages."
The summer-like temperatures are also expected to have boosted the fortunes of clothing retailers, prompting consumers to snap up spring clothing earlier than usual and leading to broad sales gains at top U.S. chains.
The milder winter left the stores stuck with an inventory of warm clothes in December and January. But most of the retailers accelerated their shipment of spring products to take advantage of the weather.
As a result, analysts expect retailers to build on the sales gains they posted in February when they report sales for March on Thursday.
Mike Pigott, a forecaster at Accuweather.com, said the long-range forecast suggested a good chunk of the country would enjoy warmer-than-normal temperatures again in April, especially in the latter half of the month.
In the meantime, he said residents who were spoiled by the summer-like warmth in March will be subjected to several weeks of more seasonable and more spring like fluctuations in temperatures.
"The pattern will feel more normal than what we saw in March -- at least for the first half of April," Pigott said. (Additional reporting by David Bailey, Bruce Olson, Julie Ingwersen, Christine Stebbins, Nivedita Bhattacharjee and Mark Weinraub; Editing by Greg McCune)
March Weather 2012: Month Was Warmest On Record Across Half Of U.S., Expert Says