Physical measurements were made on the soil of a long-term cultivation experiment comparing direct drilling, tine cultivation and mouldboard ploughing for spring barley to investigate possible reasons for differences in yield. The soil was a typical argillio brown earth, approximately 90 cm of sandy clay loam topsoil and clay loam subsoil overlying magnesian limestone. For the three periods 1971–4, 1975–7 and 1978–80 the mean grain yields were marginally lower after direct drilling than after shallow cultivation or ploughing. There was an average decline in yield of 1·33 t/ha from the first to the last period, the decline being greater for direct drilling than the other two tillage systems. Although the surface horizon (0–5 cm) of direct-drilled soil had a higher content of organic matter than the ploughed, this did not increase the stability of the aggregates. Slaking tests had shown the soil to be inherently unstable and likely to suffer from structural problems. After the first 3 years bulk density of direct-drilled soil (0–15 cm) increased markedly to ca. l·5 g/cm8 and then remained relatively stable. In the ploughed soil, density increased steadily over the period to an average value of co. 1·45 g/cm8. Tine cultivation to 7–8 cm reduced cone resistance values in the surface compared with direct-drilled soil but below 15 cm there were no significant differences. Ploughing gave significantly lower values than direct drilling to a depth of 30 cm. Measurements of pore sizes in direct-drilled and ploughed soil were highly variable with few significant differences. Mean air capacity values (1978–80) tended to be lower in direct-drilled than in ploughed topsoil particularly for plots direct drilled after 7 years of deep tine cultivation. A limited number of root measurements in 1978 and 1980 showed that the length of root per unit of ground area was much less after direct drilling than after ploughing. Shallow cultivation, surprisingly, gave most root with a greater proportion of the root system below 20 cm than in the other two treatments. The classification of this soil according to its suitability for direct drilling cereals is discussed.