Sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) ratoon crops comprise more than 0·50 of India's sugarcane acreage and reduce the cost of cultivation by 25–30%. However, ratooning is seldom practised beyond 1–2 ratoons because the yield declines in successive ratoons due to compacted soils with decreased fertility restricting root development and plant growth. Therefore, a field experiment on sugarcane was conducted from 1998 to 2003 at the Sugarcane Research Institute, Muzzaffarnagar (Uttar Pradesh), India to evaluate the effects of combinations of trash management with key cultural practices (stubble shaving, ridge dismantling, sub-soiling along stubble rows, trash mulching and earthing-up) on growth and yield of sugarcane up to the third ratoon. Two treatment combinations (ridge dismantling+stubble shaving+sub-soiling along stubble rows+trash mulching at 8 t/ha (T5) and all these plus earthing-up in June (T6)) showed similar growth, yield and economics of ratoon crops. Both these treatments produced significantly higher shoot populations, leaf area index (LAI), dry matter (DM) accumulation, net assimilation rate (NAR), number of millable canes, ratoon cane yield and sugar, soil organic carbon (SOC) content at harvest and higher net returns besides lowering weed density, weed dry weight and bulk density of soil compared with other treatments. T6 produced the highest cane yield of 77, 72 and 65 tonnes (t)/ha, which was 23, 27 and 29% more than trash burning alone (T1) in first, second and third ratoon crops, respectively. Although T6 had the same yield as T5, it led to significantly lower soil bulk density at 0–150 mm depth, higher SOC contents and greater benefit: cost ratios in the first, second and third ratoon crops, respectively compared with trash burning only. Adoption of the crop management components, separately or in combination, improved on trash burning only (the control treatment). Trash mulching sustained the improved yield and economic returns of sugarcane ratoon crops.