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Drought eases in farm belt but not over yet

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DAVID PITT | April 12, 2013 04:52 PM EST | AP

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DES MOINES, Iowa — With the farm belt's soil recharged by melted snow and spring rains, farmers are anxious to start working the fields and planting seed for the 2013 crop season.

Above-average snow cover and a chilly, wet spring have helped restore moisture to many states burdened by last year's drought, which has eased large portions of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Portions of drought-stricken Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska have seen some rain, but many counties remain woefully dry.

Early estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show farmers plan to plant 174.4 million acres in corn and soybeans this year, a record amount. In much of the farm belt, there's enough topsoil moisture to allow plants to emerge.

But the missing component is deep moisture, which farmers will have to rely on if the rain stops again.

"The issue is now that we've got some good moisture in the top part of the soil, how is that getting into the subsoil which is very important for corn because corn does go down deep and tap into a deep moisture source," said Mike Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.

The center's national weekly drought monitor report was released Thursday. It said the weather has likely recharged the top two inches of soil, which has made "moisture available to support planting and early emergence," but will take substantial continued rain to improve conditions further.

In Iowa, the nation's leading corn producer, a warm first week of April allowed farmers to get equipment ready and start tilling and applying fertilizer. Corn planting should get under way within the next two weeks as fields warm up and dry out from recent rain.

"We've had just over three inches this last week now, so the drought's definitely improving. We should be getting some more moisture built back in now," said David Klindt, 39, who farms 430 acres with his father and brother near Davenport in eastern Iowa. He plans to plant about 75 percent of his land in corn this year.

But he acknowledged the crop can only be successful if there is normal rainfall through the growing season.

"We'll have to keep getting timely rains," he said. "Last year the subsoil was full when we started the year. This year now it's better than it was but it's not 100 percent replenished yet."

Last year's planting season got off to a great start: Spring arrived early and farmers planted corn ahead of schedule. By June, however, the drought began to increase in severity and only intensified through the summer. About 60 percent of U.S. farms were in areas experiencing drought by the middle of August.

The latest drought monitor released Thursday shows eastern Iowa, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin were removed from the abnormally dry category, as soil moisture has been replenished to near normal levels by snowmelt and rain.

The monitor has five levels of drought from the lowest level of abnormally dry up to moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional levels.

East-central Iowa counties improved one notch on the scale from moderate drought to the abnormally dry category and central Iowa improved from severe to moderate. Rain in Missouri helped parts of the state reach moderate drought conditions.

Further north, some ice remained in lower soil layers and snow still covered most of North Dakota and parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, so those states' drought conditions were not changed in Thursday's report.

Heavy rain finally fell on much of north-central Plains this week, with a significant number of states likely receiving their greatest 24-hour rain totals in a year, the drought monitor report said. Next week's readings will reflect the change.

Illinois and most of Indiana and Ohio are free of drought, the report said. Improvements also were noted in western South Dakota and eastern Montana.

Most of Kansas, which saw large snowstorms last month, was left out of the heavy rain and much of the state is still in extreme or exceptional drought.

A USDA report Friday expects the season average of corn to run $6.65 to $7.15 per bushel, so it likely could be a banner year for the crop. In the recent USDA spring planting survey, farmers indicated plans to plant 97 million acres in corn – the most since 1936, when 102 million acres were planted.

Hayes said a major concern is whether pasture and rangeland used for cattle grazing in areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska will come back. If conditions don't improve, this will be Texas' third year of drought.

"When you start stringing droughts together like that, the impact tends to multiply," Hayes said. "One of the things we don't fully understand is how quickly rangeland and pastureland recovers."