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close this bookIndigenous technology knowledge for watershed management in upper north-west Himalayas of India (1998)
close this folderChapter 2 - Soil and water management techniques
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSources of irrigation water
View the documentConstruction of kuhls (water channels)
View the documentDistribution of kuhl water in fields
View the documentUse of kuhl water for running water mills
View the documentMethods of irrigation
View the documentWater harvesting methods
View the documentMoisture conservation through mulching
View the documentDrainage
View the documentUse of smoke for protecting fruit crops from frost damage
View the documentSoil management
View the documentSoil fertility management
View the documentUse of ash in Ladakh

Soil fertility management

Proper soil management, ensuring continued maintenance and building up of fertility at a high level is indispensable for the profitable use of agricultural lands. While chemical fertilizers introduce extra concentrated supplies of readily available plant nutrients to the soil, the beneficial effect of organic manures predominantly lies in furnishing humus forming material to bring about improvement in the soil structure, water holding capacity, microbial population and its activity, base exchange capacity and resistance to soil erosion. Much of the plant food removed by the crops is restored to the soil through the application of organic manures.

Soil management by crop residue harvesting

This practice is prevalent in west Himalayan cold deserts. Barley and wheat stumps (in Zanskar) are pulled out by hand along with the complete root system. Soil is softened by a light irrigation a day before. Wheat is often pulled out while standing, but kneeling or squatting is practiced for barley. Handful of these plants are beaten up against the legs (occasionally a small apron is worn) to shake off most of the earth. These bundles are then piled up like the tiles of a roof. The ears of the lower row are covered and protected from birds by the roots of the upper stacks. In cold deserts of Himachal Pradesh, barley and buckwheat (in double cropping farming system) are also pulled out by roots. This helps in uprooting weeds, soil loosening and porosity maintenance for the coming crop.

Other practice is to harvest crops as close to the grounds as possible. The roots are made to stay in soil for humus production. Very little plant material (stem and roots) is allowed to be left in the soil (in Ladakh) as a protective measure against the soil borne diseases. This practice also increases the fodder resource in winters. Retention" of roots in soil (in single cropping) contributes towards humus availability which improves the soil structure, porosity and water holding capacity of the soil.

Soil mixing with night soils

This practice is prevalent in Ladakh and other parts. Soil with human excreta is mixed and broadcasted over the fields during winter months. Soil is collected from cultivated land holdings and particularly from field bunds of sub-plots for mixing.

The night soil/human excreta possess immense manurial potentiality as it contains the major plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. So the addition of night soil/human excreta along with soil from cultivated field improves the soil fertility. The practice of collecting soil from cultivated land and fields helps in easy ploughing during summer cropping.

Organic manuring, collection and management

Organic manures derived from plant and animal resource, are valuable byproducts of farming and allied industries. Organic manures which is bulky in nature but supply the plant nutrients in small quantities are termed as bulky organic manures e.g. farm yard manure, rural and town compost, night soil, green manure etc., whereas those containing higher percentage of major plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potash are known as concentrated organic manures e.g. oil cakes, goat manure, sheep and poultry manure, blood and meat-meals, etc.

Flocks of sheep and goats, contribute towards tribal economy by way of milk, meat, wool and manure. These flocks when taken for grazing are tied with small bags which cover their anal parts so that the excreta falls right into the bag.

This region is highly sandy with low soil fertility status. The collection of dropping of sheep and goats by tieing bags is indicative of indigenous wisdom to meet out the shortage of manure. This manure of the droppings of sheep and goats contains 3% nitrogen, 1% phosphorus and 2% potassium.

In Spiti valley, organic manuring is done once a year because of mono-cropping pattern in the months of September-October after the crop. The manure is broadcasted in the entire field, which is followed by ploughing for thorough mixing. The richest manure is called Chaksa which comprises of human excreta and is collected in separate dry latrine pit. The main reason for its nutritional value is that even the bones of animals are thrown in the excreta which adds phosphorus and calcium to the manure.

The daily per capita availability of night soil, human urine and nutrients contained in it is as under:


Faeces (g)


Quantity (natural condition)



Quantity (dry)












This data shows that night soil and human urine have a great manurial potential with regard to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Due to this potential, it is considered good manure by the farmers.

Secondly cattle dung is collected in heaps within cattlesheds during winter months, so that it decomposes under relatively high temperature conditions. Then it is placed out in the open during summer in the form of heaps for further decomposition. Actually the cattle dung contains 0.2% nitrogen, 0.1% phosphorus and 0.15% potassium and cattle urine contains 0.6% nitrogen, 0.1% phosphorus and 0.5% potassium. Due to these immense manurial potentialities of cattle dung and urine, the use of this manure is very much popular among farmers.

Manuring is required for wheat, paddy and maize, which are the main crops of the Bharmour and Pangi regions. The traditional means of manure are as follows:

i) Dung of livestock, mostly cattle, collected from the sheds, pens and camps of livestock

ii) The leaves and grasses which were used as bedding for the animals, got soaked with the excreta/urine of livestock and were then collected periodically.

iii) Feeding of sheep and goats in the fields: This method of manuring is very much in vogue in those places which are visited by the Gaddi graziers, whether enroute to their camps or on move with their herds. The Gaddis are paid for this benefit. These traditional practices continues unchanged. The only improvement that has been made is that the heaps of cow dung are well covered with something or the other in order to protect them from rains and snow.

iv) In the wet temperate Himalayas, green and dried pine needles are collected in heaps and used as bedding material (Fig. 2.22 & 2.23). Before using as bedding material these pine needles are cut into small pieces.

Fig. 2.22 Green pine needles cut into pieces before spreading for bedding in cattle yard

Fig. 2.23 Green pine needles spread for bedding in cattle yard

In the absence of chemical fertilizers, organic manuring is the chief mode of soil fertilization. All efforts are made to collect and use animal dropping and for their subsequent decomposition along with the leaves and grasses which are used in manuring the crops. This is the traditional organic manure and is most readily available to the farmers. It is the product of decomposition of the liquid and solid excreta of livestock, stored in the sheds, pens and camps of livestock along with varying amounts of straws or other litter used as bedding. This farm yard manure/compost prepared from farm litter, liquid and solid excreta of livestock contains 0.5% nitrogen, 0.2% phosphorus and 0.5% potassium.

To enhance the productivity, people in Kinnaur still use the farm yard manure. It is worth mentioning that here animals are kept primarily to meet the need of manure.

Fig .2.24 FYM heaps

Donkeys, cows, goats and sheep are the main source of manure. The manure is collected either from the cowsheds inside the house or the cowsheds outside the house. Generally, the ground floor in each house is used as a cowshed so that animals can be looked after in a better way during winter months. The dung is put outside the house in a heap form in lower areas, whereas, in upper areas, it is directly put in small heaps in the fields (Fig. 2.24 and 2.25). These small heaps of dung are covered with a thin layer of soil to avoid the dispersion of manure by wind. The manure is directly mixed with the soil while ploughing. Farm yard manure is transported to the fields in Kilta (bamboo container) by people's participation (Fig. 2.26 a, b & c) and also by horses (Fig. 2.27).

Fig. 2.25 FYM heaps in the field

Fig. 2.26a Transport of FYM in kilta (bamboo container)

Fig. 2.26b Transporting FYM to field

Fig. 2.26c Peoples' participation in FYM transport

Fig. 2.27 Transport of FYM on horses

Amongst the manures, the cowdung is preferred the most. According to most farmers the sheep and goat dung may lead to burning of crops if applied in excess. Ass dung though used is not preferred much. On an average 125 to 250 qtls of manure is used per acre by the farmers throughout the Kinnaur region.

The practice of keeping small heaps of manure in open field with soil coverage in high altitude zones helps in better decomposition due to the maintenance of better temperature conditions. Use of sheep and goat manure in large quantities leads to burning of crops. The burning of crops is due to the toxic effects of high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in goat and sheep manures. The goat and sheep manure contains 3 % nitrogen, 1 % phosphorus and 2 % potassium.