* Showers in time for spring plantings
* Early plantings have slowed in the south
* Rains give a boost to winter wheat prospects
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO, March 13 (Reuters) - Wetter weather is expected over the next week in some drought-affected areas in America's grain belt, bringing valuable soil moisture ahead of spring plantings and just in time for the rapid growth stage of the winter wheat crop, an agricultural meteorologist said on Wednesday.
"There will be widely scattered showers this weekend in the Central Plains and in the southern Midwest," said Commodity Weather Group (CWG) meteorologist Joel Widenor.
Additionally, Widenor said one to two inches of rain were expected in the drought areas of the Northern Plains and upper Midwest next week.
"Most of the rain over the next two weeks will be in the Ohio River Valley, but there will be some interruptions to early corn plantings in the southern Midwest as well," he said.
The Southern Plains will be mostly dry and warmer through the next two weeks, spurring spring growth of winter wheat, CWG said.
The extended drought last summer, the worst in 50 years, slashed more than 25 percent of the projected bushels of corn to be produced per acre, cutting supplies in the United States to the current 17-year low.
Winter wheat growers in the U.S. High Plains were enjoying improved soil-moisture conditions in some growing areas as the region's drought levels continued to retreat, according to a report issued last Thursday.
Drought conditions eased because of recent snowstorms in top wheat producer Kansas and other wheat producers Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado.
But conditions grew worse in Texas.
Altogether, eight U.S. states continued to suffer from the worst levels of drought, dubbed "exceptional" by the Drought Monitor, a report issued by a consortium of state and federal climatologists each week.
Meteorologists said the significant winter snow and rain had so far eliminated the drought conditions in an area roughly from Illinois eastward.
But more moisture will be needed in April and May to nurse the winter wheat crop to maturity and aid the soon-to-be-seeded corn and soybean crops.
Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA Weather Services, said that as of early March, about 2 (5 cm) to 4 inches (10 cm) of rain were needed in Kansas, the top producer of hard red winter wheat, to bring the state out of drought status.
That was an improvement from early February when about 4 inches (10 cm) to 6 inches (15 cm) of rain were needed.
Up to 8 inches (20 cm) was needed in a pocket of severe dryness in northeastern Kansas, a big corn- and grain sorghum-growing area. Similar amounts were needed in portions of eastern Nebraska and a swath across northern Iowa and south-central Minnesota.
Near normal soil moisture was seen in early March in roughly the southeast two-thirds of Missouri and nearly all of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum)