By Christine Stebbins
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Drought conditions expanded in the contiguous United States over the past week given persistent heat and dryness in the southern Plains, while the eastern half of the country is out of drought amid steady rains, according to a weekly drought report.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, issued by state and federal experts on Wednesday, said drought areas in the "moderate to exceptional" categories grew to 44.06 percent, from 43.84 a week ago.
"This is the third straight week of the drought expanding," Matthew Rosencrans, with the U.S. Climate Prediction Center and author of the drought monitor, told Reuters. "The biggest expansion was in northeast Texas but the drought also expanded into southeast Texas and Oklahoma."
The southern Plains, big wheat and cattle country, has struggled with drought for the past several years amid limited rains and intense heat.
But overall conditions for the United States, the world's top food exporter, are much improved from the height of drought last autumn when two-thirds of the country was in drought, the worse since the 1930s.
Of the big U.S. crop states, Nebraska - the fourth largest corn state and a leading producer of cattle, sorghum and wheat - is the driest with 88.41 percent in moderate to exceptional drought. That compares to 88.36 percent a week ago and 64.63 percent a year ago.
Rainfall in North Platte, Nebraska, "is approaching 3 inches below average for the year and has also not seen more than 0.5 inch of rain at one time since May 29," the report said.
While hot, dry conditions persist in the west, farmland from Iowa eastward continue to see steady rains and mild temperatures. Illinois, typically the second largest corn and soy producer, had its wettest January-June in history, with 28.7 inches of rain - 8.9 inches above average, according to the Illinois state climatologist.
"The east is almost too wet," Rosencrans said.
The five-day outlook favors wet weather for the eastern half of the United States and generally less than 1 inch of rain is forecast for the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, the drought report said.
(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)