Soybean acreage planted with conservation tillage jumped last year, helping to offset a decline in the percentage of corn acres planted using those practices.

Overall, conservation tillage was used on 37% of planted acres - the same as in 1997. The percentage of crop acres planted using intensive (conventional) tillage systems also remained unchanged, at 36%. Reduced tillage accounted for 27% of the more than 293 million U.S. crop acres in 1998.

The data is from a report on the 17th annual Conservation Tillage Survey by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC).

According to CTIC, conservation tillage includes no-till/strip-till, ridge-till and mulch-till, all of which leave 30% or more residue on the surface after planting. Reduced tillage leaves 15-30% residue; intensive tillage, less than 15% residue.

Iowa and Illinois - the top two states in planted acres - saw a combined drop in conservation tillage of 2.3 million acres. But small gains were made in six of the top ten states: Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Indiana, South Dakota and Missouri.

The failure of conservation tillage to show gains in 1998 disappoints Dave Schertz, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agronomist.

"The report unfortunately sends the message that U.S. agriculture will have difficulty reaching the national goal of 50% of cropped acres (in conservation tillage) by 2002," says Schertz.

Soybeans are helping to gain on that goal. No-till accounted for 32% of soybean acres planted in 1998, up from 29% in 1997 - an increase of 1.5 million acres. Reduced- and mulch-till each was used on 21% of soybean acres, ridge-till on 1% and intensive tillage on 25%.

Ohio and Indiana led the nation in no-till soybeans with 58% and 57%, respectively, of their acres planted without tillage. Of the top five soybean states, only Iowa reported a decrease (1%) in no-till soybeans.

Meanwhile, the portion of total corn acres planted using conservation tillage dropped 2.5% in 1998. Total corn acres increased by 3.4 million, but only 100,000 of those acres went into conservation tillage systems.

Intensive tillage was still used on 36% of corn acres. Reduced tillage was at 25%, followed by 20% in mulch-till. No-till was used on 16% of corn acres, ridge-till on 3%.

However, the successful use of strip-till in corn over the past few seasons has raised optimism for its future.

"Strip-till gives corn growers the opportunity to capitalize on the cost-reduction benefits of a conservation tillage system," points out Dan Towery, CTIC natural resources specialist.

Strip-till, Towery adds, takes much of the risk out of planting no-till corn in states with traditionally cool, wet springs.

Research shows that using conservation tillage can save U.S. growers as much as 225 hours and 1,750 gallons of fuel per year on 500 acres. In addition, it's estimated to save $2,500 a year in machinery wear.

"This is not a situation that NRCS can turn around by itself," says Schertz. "It will take the entire agriculture industry working together to demonstrate how to profitably use high-residue systems."