By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - Crop-killing drought deepened in Kansas over the last week, further jeopardizing this season's production of winter wheat, a key U.S. crop.
Kansas is generally the top U.S. wheat-growing state, but the new crop planted last fall has been struggling with a lack of soil moisture. Without rain and/or heavy snow before spring, millions of acres of wheat could be ruined.
But a new climatology report issued Thursday showed no signs of improvement for Kansas, or neighboring farm states. Instead, drought was holding tight or growing worse in that region, according to the Drought Monitor report issued Thursday by a consortium of federal and state climatology experts.
Roughly 57.64 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least "moderate" drought as of January 22, an improvement from 58.87 percent a week earlier, according to the Drought Monitor. But the worst level of drought, dubbed "exceptional," expanded slightly to 6.36 percent, up from 6.31 percent of the country.
The worst-hit area is the High Plains. Severe drought blanketed 87.25 percent of the High Plains, unchanged from the week before, but extreme drought grew to 61.30 percent, up from 61.27 percent, and exceptional drought expanded to 27.02 percent, up from 26.81 percent the prior week.
Fully 100 percent of the land area in Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma remained engulfed in severe drought or worse, according to the Drought Monitor.
Kansas saw a marked increase in the spread of the worst levels of drought over the last week, the report said. The level of extreme drought grew to 79.53 percent from 79.34 percent, and exceptional drought grew to 36.14 percent, up from 34.87 percent.
"Kansas kind of bucked the overall trend, cause other areas saw some improvement," said Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist. "The biggest concern is the hard red winter wheat crop."
Kansas typically makes up nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. wheat production with a production value that hovers around $1 billion.
But many farmers worry this year that a severe shortage of soil moisture will decimate production.
The southern portion of the Plains has been getting some moisture, while the north has seen some periodic snow, but little moisture has been noted in the Plains lately, said Rippey.
Some moisture is forecast to move through southern parts of the Plains, into possibly Kansas or even Nebraska for this weekend, Rippey said.
"Kind of a quick shot, but there is some hope to buy a little more time for some of that wheat," he said.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)