The Soil Conservation Service curve number (CN) method commonly uses three discrete levels of soil antecedent moisture condition (AMC), defined by the 5-day antecedent rainfall depth, to describe soil moisture prior to a runoff event. However, this way may not adequately represent soil water conditions of fields and watersheds in the Loess Plateau of China. The objectives of this study were: (1) to determine the effective soil moisture depth to which the CN is most related; (2) to evaluate a discrete and a linear relationship between AMC and soil moisture; and (3) to develop an equation between CN and soil moisture to predict runoff better for the climatic and soil conditions of the Loess Plateau of China. The dataset consisted of 10 years of rainfall, runoff and soil moisture measurements from four experimental plots cropped with millet, pasture and potatoes. Results indicate that the standard CN method underestimated runoff depths for 85 of the 98 observed plot-runoff events, with a model efficiency E of only 0·243. For our experimental conditions, the discrete and linear approaches improved runoff estimation, but still underestimated most runoff events, with E values of 0·428 and 0·445 respectively. Based on the measured CN values and soil moisture values in the top 15 cm of the soil, a non-linear equation was developed that predicted runoff better with an E value of 0·779. This modified CN equation was the most appropriate for runoff prediction in the study area, but may need adjustments for local conditions in the Loess Plateau of China. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.