WASHINGTON (AP)--While gloomy and depressing for some, a streak of rainy days made farmers happy this spring, restoring soil moisture to normal levels across wide swaths of the Midwest and the central and southern Plains.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said June 11 spring rains in those regions forced some farmers to delay planting last month and caused flooding in low-lying areas.

So far, farmers in those areas have planted 95% of their corn crop and 75% of their soybean crop. The department said the rain is making conditions ideal for producing healthy crops in corn-growing states like Iowa.

The department predicted a record corn crop of 229 million metric tons. Soybean production is expected to be 74 million metric tons.

Keith Collins, USDA chief economist, said the rainfall "did disrupt some of the field work in a lot of areas of the country, but by and large, the corn crop was planted."

Soybean planting is lagging because many areas were inundated with rain, Collins said, but "the rain is very good for pastures which have been decimated over the last several years."

Midwestern states received 8 inches of rain last month--the same amount they got in May 2002, the National Weather Service said.

Dale Larsen, a farmer in Marne, Iowa, said his farm got plenty of rain.

"Right here in this area, we are real good," he said. "I'm just finishing spraying the beans the first time so all my crop was in early."

He said he expects that his 350 acres of corn and 350 acres of soybeans will be healthy this year, barring any severe weather.

Farther west, states need more rain.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, said May showers merely moistened the topsoil in the West. Livestock farmers there need steady rain until winter to revive the dry pastures where their cattle and sheep graze, he said.

"Those don't bounce back in two or three months of normal rainfall," Svoboda said.

Last month, 4 inches fell on the Plains states, such as Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, the National Weather Service said. In May 2002 the same amount fell on Montana and parts of Idaho and Wyoming, while Utah and Colorado just got between a tenth of an inch to 2 inches.

Dry, hot weather stunted plant growth and forced cattle ranchers to cut back on their herds last year, prompting USDA to predict that retail beef prices will climb to the highest they've been since April 2001, when consumers paid $3.45 per pound.

Forecasters predict that horrible weather will persist in states such as Utah and Wyoming, which have been caught in a drought for four years.

"We're looking for some continued improvement for most of the Plains states," said Rich Tinker, a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center. "Once you get to the front range of the Rockies and go westward and northward, it's a little less optimistic."

Duane Smith, a cattle rancher in Kimball, Neb., fed hay to his 250 cows last year because pastures were too dry. Although he hasn't resorted to feeding his cattle hay this year, he is hoping for more rain.

"We're always praying for rain in western Nebraska," said Smith. "We might get it at the wrong time, but we never get too much."

Wildfires also are a concern.

Tom Wordell, an analyst for the National Interagency Fire Center, expects fires will spark in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho and parts of Oregon and California, where dry land and dying plants are fuel for the flames.

The fire season is off to a slow start, though.

"On a normal year at the end of June, we typically have around 44,000 fires nationally," Wordell said. "We're running at about 60%."

Wildfires scorch more than a million acres of land in the United States every year.

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