By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Snow and a snow-rain mix were forecast for nearly all of the U.S. Plains hard red winter wheat region Monday and Tuesday, bringing welcome relief from the worst drought in over 50 years but snarling transportation and hampering livestock operations.
"We weren't able to make it in the office this morning. They say we have about 14 inches now and we could get up to 20 inches. I can hardly see 100 yards out my back window," said Kenneth Gladney, officer in charge of the USDA market news office in Amarillo, Texas.
"I don't see how any (cattle) buyers could get around," he said.
In a sign that the storm was delaying cattle shipments, packers on Monday processed 87,000 head of cattle, down 22,000 from a week earlier and 33,000 less than the same period a year ago, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
A farmer in southeast Kansas was building windbreaks for his cow herd from big round bales of straw and corn stalks.
"It's supposed to hit here around three (3:00 p.m. CST, 2100 GMT). They're now saying we are to get 12 to 18 inches of snow and 20 to 30 mile-per-hour winds," he said.
Wheat farmers should welcome the precipitation as the 2013 crop approaches the spring growing season.
"It will certainly be enough moisture now to get the crop growing when it breaks dormancy," said John Dee, meteorologist for Global Weather Monitoring. "More will be needed in April and May. For now it's a big help."
Dee said roughly a foot of snow would fall Monday and Tuesday in nearly all of Kansas, and rain mixed with snow would fall elsewhere, bringing about 0.50 inch to 1.00 inch of moisture to most of the Plains.
The storm, following a similar one last week, will help boost winter wheat prospects and add valuable soil moisture ahead of spring planting of corn and soybeans.
Commodity Weather Group (CWG) said on Monday that a blizzard was under way in the southwestern Plains on Monday, with winds gusting above 60 mph in west Texas. Snow totals of mostly 6.00 to 12.00 inches were expected.
"The storm will exit later today, but additional stress is occurring to cattle from the Kansas-Oklahoma border southwestward into west Texas," said CWG meteorologist Joel Widenor.
"The storm will aid soil moisture for much of the southern half of the Plains wheat belt, though, with another chance for more moisture in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma next week," he said.
Thursday's weekly Drought Monitor report issued by a group of state and federal climatologists showed 18.66 percent of the contiguous United States was suffering from extreme drought, up from 17.71 percent a week earlier. The percentage in exceptional drought, the worst category, grew to 6.66 percent from 6.61 percent the previous week.
Kansas wheat farmers welcomed the winter snowstorm, but the drought-stress on the winter wheat crop from seeding time last fall until now probably has harmed some of it beyond repair, experts have said.
Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather, said that as of early February, roughly 4 to 6 inches of rain were needed in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat, to bring the state out of drought status. And up to 8 inches were needed in a pocket of severe dryness in northeastern Kansas, a big corn- and grain sorghum-growing area.
Similar amounts were needed in Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Missouri and the northern reaches of Illinois and Indiana.
Significant winter rainfall and snow have eliminated the drought for now in an area roughly from Illinois eastward, according to Keeney.
(Reporting by Sam Nelson; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Jim Marshall)