Abstract Spatial variation of crop yields was examined in three trial cereal fields in England from 1994 through 1997. The fields were managed with uniform inputs but there were considerable differences in the spatial patterns and magnitudes of variation between fields and seasons. Up to 50% of the yield variation was within the tramline spacing distance (20–24 m) and this appeared to relate to crop management practices rather than underlying soil factors. Longer-range variation generally increased up to field scale but was not constant between seasons. Longer-range variation was more apparent in dry years and was attributable to soil variation. Soil series differences coincided with yield differences in dry years when the soil series differences could be expected to create large differences in soil–water relationships. Soil electrical conductivity, measured by electromagnetic induction (EMI), was investigated as a surrogate for detailed soil coring. Field zones created by EMI also coincided with yield differences and zones were similar to those delineated by soil series with expected differences in soil–water relationships. The EMI observations were found to be a useful and cost-effective surrogate for representing soil variability in fields likely to create yield variations. Subdivision of fields into management zones using multi-variate K-means cluster analysis of historical yield and EMI observations formed an objective basis for targeting soil samples for nutrient analysis and development of site-specific application strategies. The appropriateness of site-specific management has to be assessed annually because magnitude and pattern of variation changes from season to season.