Soil degradation resulting from permanent and high pressure on natural resources is a threat for the present and future of agricultural production in Ethiopia. Mono-cropping, cultivation on steep slopes, use of cattle manure and crop residues as an energy source for cooking are common practices that have led to declining soil organic matter (SOM) contents. The objective of this research was to evaluate the current status of SOM in farmlands and exclosures (areas protected from grazing to allow their natural restoration) in Northern Ethiopia and to explore the long-term effects of current agricultural practices and an improved scenario on SOM. At present, the SOM content of farmland soils is small, ranging from 2.1% to 2.9%, while exclosures showed a significant recovery after 20 yr of protection, with SOM contents ranging from 2.6% to 5.6%. However, the level of SOM in farmland soils is envisaged to decline given current agricultural practices, that is removal of crop residues and use of manure as an energy source for cooking. We found that applying manure alone appeared to be insufficient to revert this trend, due to limited availability and its alternative uses. Therefore, a multidisciplinary approach including improved manure and compost management needs to be supplemented with energy saving techniques, as fuel use is currently the largest competing claim for organic matter in the area.