Abstract The effects of cultivation, ploughing (20–25 cm), tine cultivation (7.5–10 or 15–20 cm) and direct drilling on the distribution of extractable soil phosphate and potassium were compared on a sandy loam, a calcareous silt loam overlying chalk and a calcareous clay. Effects on the uptake of nitrogen and phosphate by spring barley and winter wheat crops were also investigated. Direct drilling and the two depths of tine cultivation gave closely similar results and there was an increased concentration of extractable P and K close to the soil surface compared with the more uniform distribution through the tilled layer caused by the inversion of the soil by ploughing. In general, during the season phosphate concentration in the shoot dry matter and phosphate content per unit area in the crops were not affected by the differences in nutrient distribution. Thus no effects were detected in samples collected at the beginning of stem elongation. However, at anthesis in both crops phosphate content was greater after direct drilling than after ploughing. Ploughing resulted in significantly greater concentrations of nitrogen in the dry matter than did the other cultivation treatments. Averaging over both crops at the three sites, neither the yields of dry matter nor the total content of nitrogen differed significantly between cultivation treatments. The results give further confidence that simplified cultivation techniques including direct drilling are unlikely, at least in the short term, to affect adversely the uptake of nutrients by cereals. We emphasise the closely similar results in the distribution of nutrients in the soil when it was disturbed to varying depths but without inversion.