ST. LOUIS (AP) — The worst U.S. drought in decades showed little sign of easing last week as farmers closed out their corn and soybean harvests and turned their attention to winter wheat, which has been struggling to break through the moisture-starved soil in some states, according to a weekly report.
The latest U.S. Drought Monitor update Thursday showed that just over 62 percent of the lower 48 states still was in some form of drought as of Tuesday, which was about the same as in the previous seven-day period. Nineteen percent of that land remained in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories.
Recent thunderstorms helped slightly relax the drought's grip in portions of the nation's midsection, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 87 percent of the corn and 80 percent of the soybean crops now have been brought in from the fields, weeks ahead of scheduled because of an earlier planting season.
In Iowa, the nation's biggest corn producer, 93 percent of the corn had been reaped as nearly 63 percent of the state still was mired in extreme or exceptional drought, an improvement in severity of only less than 1 percentage point from a week earlier.
The drought's stubbornness has become the latest headache for growers now turning their attention to winter wheat, which typically germinates this time of year and grows several inches before going dormant for the winter and resuming its growth next spring.
The USDA said Monday in its weekly crop report that while 81 percent of that crop had been planted, only half of it has broken through the soil to show signs of life — an amount that is 7 percentage points less than the average seen over the previous five years.
Such difficulties were especially pronounced in South Dakota, where growers 83 percent through their winter wheat planting have found just 13 percent of that crop having emerged, considerably below the five-year average of 80 percent.
The U.S. is the world's leading wheat exporter, but agricultural economist Rick Whitacre said it's premature to worry that the delayed emergence of winter wheat in some areas will lead to higher grocery bills down the line.
"It's way too early to start talking about any impact on bread prices," said Whitacre, who teaches at Illinois State University. "Wheat has a way of keep coming back, and it's very common for the media to kill of a wheat crop three or four times before it's actually harvested. It's a pretty hardy crop."
Wheat planting already was 91 percent done in Kansas, the nation's top producer of the grain. Sixty-two percent of that state's crop already has emerged from the ground as 77.8 percent of Kansas remained caught up in extreme or exceptional drought, according to Thursday's update. Just 2 percent of that crop is rated in excellent condition, with 38 percent considered good, 49 percent fair and 11 percent poor to very poor.
Drought was posing similar troubles in Nebraska, where nearly all the winter wheat crop has been seeded but only 58 percent has emerged because of the dry soil. Typically, 87 percent of the crop has germinated there by now.
The pace of germination was down 31 percent in Montana and 16 percent in Colorado.
U.S. farmers this year harvested 2.2 billion bushels of wheat, a 13-percent rise from the 2 billion bushels of last year, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Winter wheat accounted for much of this year's production, with the 1.65 billion bushels of that crop eclipsing the 1.49 billion bushels grown last year.