Abstract Crop yields can be reduced by soil compaction due to increased resistance to root growth, and decrease in water and nutrient use efficiencies. A field experiment was conducted during 1997–1998 and 1998–1999 on a sandy clay loam (fine-loamy, mixed, hyperthermic Typic Haplargids, USDA; Luvic Yermosol, FAO) to study subsoil compaction effects on root growth, nutrient uptake and chemical composition of wheat ( Triticum aestivum L.) and sorghum ( Sorghum bicolor L. Moench). Soil compaction was artificially created once at the start of the study. The 0.00–0.15 m soil was manually removed with a spade. The exposed layer was compacted with a mechanical compactor from 1.65 Mg m −3 (control plot) to a bulk density of 1.93 Mg m −3 (compacted plot). The topsoil was then again replaced above the compacted subsoil and levelled. Both compacted and control plots were hoed manually and levelled. Root length density, measured at flowering stage, decreased markedly with compaction during 1997–1998 but there was little effect during 1998–1999. The reduction in nutrient uptake by wheat due to compaction of the subsoil was 12–35% for N, 17–27% for P and up to 24% for K. The reduction in nutrient uptake in sorghum due to subsoil compaction was 23% for N, 16% for P, and 12% for K. Subsoil compaction increased N content in wheat grains in 1997–1998, but there was no effect on P and K contents of grains and N and P content of wheat straw or sorghum stover. During 1997–1998, K content of wheat straw was statistically higher in control treatment compared with compacted treatment. In 1998, P-content of sorghum leaves was higher in compacted treatment than uncompacted control. Root length density of wheat below 0.15 m depth was significantly reduced and was significantly and negatively correlated with soil bulk density. Therefore, appropriate measures such as periodic chiselling, controlled traffic, conservation tillage, and incorporating of crops with deep tap root system in rotation cycle is necessary to minimize the risks of subsoil compaction.