* Rains in eastern Midwest to help soybeans, too late for corn
* NOAA says drought worst in over a half century
* Crop conditions plunging; prices rising
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO, July 17 (Reuters) - Hot, dry weather for the next two weeks will continue to stress corn and soybean crops in the western and northern U.S. Midwest, while rainfall in the east will provide some relief to the struggling soybean, an agricultural meteorologist said on Tuesday.
"The rains will be too late for corn but it will help soybeans. We see upwards of an inch to 1-1/2 inches (of rain) this week and again next week for Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky," said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather.
However, the drought is spreading into the western and northwestern crop belt, leading to further stress and more crop losses.
Keeney said hot, dry weather would remain the norm for the next two weeks in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas and southern Wisconsin.
"Temperatures will get up to 100 (degrees Fahrenheit) today in Chicago and 102 in St. Louis," he said. Cooler temperatures in the 80s and 90s are expected by the weekend, but hotter weather is likely to return next week.
The expanding drought, now considered the worst in over a half century, punished the U.S. corn crop last week.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in its weekly crop progress report on Monday, said just 31 percent of the corn crop was in good to excellent shape, down from 40 percent a week earlier and below analysts' average estimate of 35 percent.
Soybean conditions fell to 34 percent from 40 percent in the good to excellent category, below estimates for 35 percent.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a report on Monday that based on the Palmer Drought Index, 55 percent of the contiguous United States was under moderate to extreme drought in June. That is the largest land area in the United States to be affected by a drought since December 1956.
Commodity Weather Group (CWG) on Tuesday said over half of the Midwest would continue with severe moisture deficits and plenty of heat, particularly in the western corn belt.
"Late pollinating and filling corn and pod-setting soybeans will see yields fall further," said CWG meteorologist Joel Widenor.
"Showers may scatter into the south and east Midwest, but relief for the belt as a whole would still be limited."
Chicago Board of Trade corn prices have soared more than 40 percent in only six weeks as crop prospects have plunged. (Reporting By Sam Nelson; editing by John Wallace)
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