For the first time, conservation tillage edged out conventional tillage in the acreage race.

No-till, mulch-till and ridge-till planting systems accounted for 37% of the 294.6 million acres of cropland planted in '97. Conventional tillage was used on 36% of those acres.

"We are committed to seeing conservation tillage on 50% of the annually planted acres in the U.S. by 2002," says John Hebblethwaite, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) executive director.

CTIC defines conservation tillage as any system leaving 30% or more crop residue on the soil surface after planting. Conventional tillage leaves less than 15% residue, and in-between systems are called reduced tillage.

According to a CTIC survey, 109.8 million acres were planted using conservation tillage practices in 1997. That's a 6-million-acre increase from last year. Conventional tillage dropped by 4 million acres, to 107.6 million. Reduced tillage systems accounted for the remaining 77.3 million acres planted.

Growers in five states -- Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota, Kansas and Indiana -- contributed 5 million of conservation tillage's 6-million-acre increase. Iowa added a whopping 1.5 million acres, followed by Illinois, 1 million acres; South Dakota, 800,000; Kansas, 790,000; and Indiana, 680,000.

Indiana growers rebounded from last year's 650,000-acre decline. The decline was due to wet weather.

Compared to '96 figures, no-till plantings increased by 3.1 million acres, mulch-till by 2.5 million and ridge-till by almost 400,000.

Total no-till acres jumped from 42.9 million to 46 million. The leading states are: Illinois, 5.9 million acres; Iowa, 4.9 million; Indiana, 4.1 million; Ohio, 3.7 million; and Missouri, 3.2 million.

Total mulch-till acreage increased from 57.5 million to 60 million. The top five states are: Iowa, 8.2 million acres; North Dakota, 4.8 million; Kansas, just over 4.7 million; Texas, 4.7 million; and Nebraska, 4.6 million.

Ridge-till acreage increased from 3.4 million to 3.7 million. Nebraska has the most ridge-till acres, with 1.7 million, followed by Kansas, 495,000; Minnesota, 311,000; Louisiana, 263,000; and Iowa, 174,000.Overall, growers plant ed 4.5 million more acres of cropland in '97 than in '96, and 4.3 million of the increase was in soybean acres.

Iowa leads in the number of soybean acres in conservation tillage, with 7.3 million, followed by Illinois, 6.2 million; Indiana, 3.6 million; Missouri; 2.9 million; and Minnesota, 2.8 million.

The top five states for conservation tillage corn acres are: Nebraska, 6 million; Iowa, 5.5 million; Illinois, 3 million; South Dakota, 1.9 million; and Indiana, 1.8 million. Kansas was close behind with 1.7 million.