The U.S. Corn Belt - the world's top grain region - is seeing another dry winter after the worst summer drought in half a century, reducing prospects for a bumper summer harvest that would help ease global food prices, crop and climate experts said.
"We are still concerned about getting the leftovers out of the way from the drought of 2012. At this time we would not anticipate a national corn yield above the trend," said Iowa State University climatologist Elwynn Taylor, who has studied crop production for decades. "Rather, we would expect a fourth consecutive year of below-trend crop, not as far below as in 2012 but still not up to par."
The 2012 drought locked two-thirds of the U.S. continental land mass in severe drought last summer, cutting production of the biggest crop, corn, by 27 percent from early season estimates.
The U.S. supplies more than half of world exports of corn, which is the top livestock feed for meat and dairy animals, the main feedstock for ethanol production, and the leading ingredient in dozens of food and industrial products from vegetable oil to sweeteners, paints and plastics. As such, its price is a key for food inflation and its supply outlook is closely watched by Federal Reserve policymakers, bankers, farm suppliers and food processors.
On Thursday, the government's weekly U.S. Drought Monitor said that 42.05 percent of the continental United States remained in severe to exceptional drought, down from 42.45 percent the previous week. Parts of the Corn Belt east of the Mississippi River and parts of the central Plains received snow over the last week, providing some much-needed moisture. But the snow did not offer much drought relief, with little improvement expected over the winter, according to the report.
Taylor and other crop specialists said continued lack of snow and rain was the biggest threat in the western Corn Belt - Minnesota and South Dakota south to Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. Those states produce about half the U.S. crop.
Taylor said in December it would take about 16 inches of precipitation by April 1 to recharge moisture in Corn Belt soils, up from the usual 12 inches that farmers look for over the winter.
The moisture is vital to spur adequate corn, soybean and spring wheat plant roots, which extend several feet down to tap into subsoil moisture. Persistent drought over more than a year in many areas meant plant roots drove down 8 or 9 feet last year in search of moisture, compared with the usual 5 feet.