* Snowfall boosts drought-stricken wheat
* Storm moving into dry U.S. Midwest
* Cattle feeding, calving hampered by blizzard
By Sam Nelson
CHICAGO, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Heavy snowfall covered nearly all of the U.S. Plains on Tuesday, adding valuable moisture for the drought-stricken wheat crop but snarling transportation and hampering cattle feeding and calving, an agricultural meteorologist said on Tuesday.
"There was heavy snow in the Plains, with up to 20 inches in west central Oklahoma and northwest Texas, and it is moving into the Midwest now," said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather.
Keeney said one foot (30.5 cm) or more of snow covered northwestern Missouri and rain changing to snow was moving into Illinois, with up to 8 inches (20.3 cm) of snow possible by late Tuesday in Chicago. "It covered all of Kansas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado and the northwest half of Oklahoma. It's not a drought-buster but it will help, they need a lot more moisture," he said.
Keeney said from 1 inch to 1.50 inches of moisture could be added to dry soil in the Plains. However, frozen soil may prevent the moisture from soaking into the drought-stricken soil, he said. "The issue we will have now is that it will remain cold for the next 15 days across the Plains, Midwest and Delta."
The weekly Drought Monitor report issued Feb. 21 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, rose 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.
Keeney said that as of early February, roughly 4 inches (10 cm) to 6 inches (15.2 cm) 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 (20.3 cm) 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 so far eliminated the drought in an area roughly from Illinois eastward, according to Keeney. (Reporting by Sam Nelson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)