Long-term in situ soil and water conservation experiments are rare in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Eastern Africa. A long-term experiment was conducted (2005–2013) on a Vertisol to quantify the impacts of resource-conserving agriculture (RCA) on runoff, soil loss, soil fertility and crop productivity and economic profitability in northern Ethiopia. Two RCA practices were developed from traditional furrow tillage practices: (i) derdero+ (DER+) and terwah+ (TER+). DER+ is a furrow and permanent raised bed planting system, tilled once at planting time by refreshing the furrow and 30% of crop residue is retained. TER+ is ploughed once at planting, furrows are made at 1.5 m intervals and 30% crop residue is retained. The third treatment was a conventional tillage (CT) with a minimum of three tillage operations and complete removal of crop residues. Wheat, teff, barley and grass pea crops were grown in rotation. Runoff, and soil and nutrient loss were measured in plastic sheet-lined collector trenches. Significantly different (P < 0.05) runoff coefficients (%) and soil losses (t ha−1) averaged over 9 yrs were 14 and 3, 22 and 11 and 30 and 17 for DER+, TER+ and CT, respectively. Significant improvements in crop yield and gross margin were observed after a period of three years of cropping This study demonstrated that RCA systems in semi-arid agro-ecosystems constitute a field rainwater conservation and soil fertility improvement strategy that enhances crop productivity and economic profitability. Adoption of RCA systems (DER+ and TER+) in the study area requires further work to improve smallholder farmers’ awareness on benefits, to guarantee high standards during implementation and to design appropriate weed management strategies.