By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Winter snow and early spring rains have helped ease the drought in the United States crop belt, but there is still a lack of moisture in lower levels of soils, leaving crop yields vulnerable, an agricultural meteorologist said on Thursday.
Kyle Tapley, senior agricultural meteorologist for MDA Weather Services told a weather conference in Chicago that the U.S. Plains and the western Midwest are still in the worst drought in more than 50 years.
"Subsoil moisture is still lacking. Moisture has improved in the top two inches of soils but not in the subsoil" or lower levels, Tapley said.
MDA Weather Services is forecasting a drier-than-normal growing season but not the extreme dryness that slashed corn and soybean production during the summer of 2012.
Corn, soybean and wheat yield per acre will be below trendline but better than the harvest from last year's drought-stricken crop, Tapley said.
"Topsoil in Nebraska is above average but subsoil is below average. If dryness persists it won't take long to dry out the soils," Tapley said.
Nebraska, one of the top five corn producing states in the United States, remains in drought as does much of the Plains and other areas of the Midwest roughly from Iowa and Missouri westward. The eastern half of the Midwest has near normal soil moisture reserves.
Tapley said MDA Weather Services was forecasting warmer weather and below-normal rainfall in May which will be conducive to rapid planting of this year's corn and soybean crops.
For the summer growing season, the weather company is forecasting a warm pattern for the central and eastern United States, drier than normal weather for the Plains and southern Midwest but "dryness won't be nearly as extreme as last year," he said.
Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Climatologist told the gathering of risk managers and others interested in crop weather that the next couple of weeks will remain colder than usual and it will remain wet, which will stall spring field work in many areas until nearly May.
Taylor also forecast a warmer and drier than normal summer growing season.
"We've had three years straight of below trendline yields and we're likely to have a fourth one this year," Taylor said. "Drought is likely to persist and expand west."
MDA Weather Services is forecasting corn yields this year at 154 bushels per acre and soybean yields at 43 bushels, Tapley said.
Last year's drought-reduced U.S. corn crop averaged 147.2 bushels per acre and two years ago the yield per acre was 152.8. The soybean yield last year was 41.9 bushels and two years ago 43.5 bushels per acre, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
(Reporting by Sam Nelson; Editing by Grant McCool)