The current cropping system of excessive tillage and stubble removal in the northwestern Loess Plateau of China is clearly unsustainable. A better understanding of tillage and surface cover management on surface soil structure is vital for the development of effective soil conservation practices in the long term. Changes in surface soil structure and hydraulic properties were measured after 4 years of straw and plastic film management under contrasting tillage practices (no tillage vs. conventional tillage) in a silt loam soil (Los Orthic Entisol) which had been under conventional management for hundred of years in the northwestern Loess Plateau, China. Surface soil (0-10 cm) under no tillage with straw cover had the highest water stability of macro-aggregates (>250 [mu]m) and the highest saturated hydraulic conductivity. Compared with straw cover, plastic film cover did not change macro-aggregate stability and the soil had the lowest saturated hydraulic conductivity (Ksat) but the highest % <50 [mu]m soil particles. Significant correlation was found between water stable macro-aggregates and soil organic carbon content, indication the importance of the latter on soil structural development. No tillage on its own (without straw cover) was not sufficient to improve structural stability probably due to lack of organic carbon input. While use of plastic film cover might lead to short term yield increases, results indicated that it did little to improve soil physical fertility. On the other hand, no tillage with straw cover management should lead to long-term improvement of physical quality of this structurally fragile soil.