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Chapter 2 - Soil and water management techniques

Sources of irrigation water
Construction of kuhls (water channels)
Distribution of kuhl water in fields
Use of kuhl water for running water mills
Methods of irrigation
Water harvesting methods
Moisture conservation through mulching
Use of smoke for protecting fruit crops from frost damage
Soil management
Soil fertility management
Use of ash in Ladakh

In mountain watersheds, irrigation has been practiced as an art for about 3000 years now. Historical records bear testimony to the existence of a number of irrigation works in different parts of the country. In the Himalayas, the perennial river Ganges made it relatively easy to divert its flow through inundation channels. In the south, where rainfall is scanty, the practice of trapping rain water in large tanks and ponds for agricultural purposes is widely adopted.

From time immemorial, surface irrigation methods have been followed. The most effective irrigation method for a particular area depends on the slope of the land, the nature of the soil, the type of the crop and availability of funds.

In mountain areas, water continues to be the scarce commodity not only for irrigation but even for drinking and other domestic uses. This difficulty has been experienced very frequently, inspite of the fact that important rivers namely Sutlez, Beas, Ravi and their tributaries originate from these hills. The existing resources are further declining due to heavy biotic pressure and lack of management of existing resources. Most of our Agricultural/Horticultural activities are carried on under rainfed conditions and this require proper management of available water to be conserved for dry periods.

Sources of irrigation water

In the hill region, the scope of boring tubewells, canals and even lift irrigation is limited, such facilities are confined to the low laying areas. Therefore, the most common source of irrigation remains the small water channels locally called Kuhls which intact accounts for 85.83 per cent of the total area under irrigation in hills (Fig. 2.1).

Fig. 2.1 Well planned Kuhl irrigation water distribution system

In cold deserts, some villages get water for irrigating their lands from some perennial torrents. In Spiti valley, the source of irrigation water is generally local nallas. Glacial water in cold deserts of Himachal Pradesh which forms the prime source of sustaining life in the region is brought to the field by making Kuhls (Water Channels).

In Kinnaur and other regions, the source of irrigation as well as drinking water is melting snow on the high peaks which runs downward in the shape of small and big nallahas (streams) and also spring out at certain points.

Construction of kuhls (water channels)

In cold deserts of Himachal pradesh kuhls (water channels) are built along the hill gradient for maintaining proper gravity for irrigation (Fig. 2.2). Kuhls are commonly found in West Himalayas cold deserts. The technique for the preparation of kuhls for irrigation purposes seems to have originated since Babylonian times, it is still one of the commonest ways of bringing water to the crops. If the river has a steep gradient, water is diverted into a canal some distance upstream and led along a contour so that it can flow to fields by gravity.

Fig. 2.2 "Kuhl" - open channel irrigation system

In dry temperate zone, kuhls (wooden water channels) are generally made by making notches at the natural water sources and the water is diverted to the fields for irrigation to different terraces, using the natural gravitational flow of water (Fig. 2.3). Since the topography of the area consists of very high slopes and rocky terrain's, wooden water channels are used at many places as water passes from one place to another. The water channels are built and managed by the villagers with no government assistance. In the lower areas of H.P. bamboo pipes are commonly used as irrigation channels on depressions/small nala (Fig. 2.4).

Fig. 2.3 Wooden Water Channel

In west Himalayan cold deserts for the optimum harnessing of water for irrigation, water channels are constructed along the natural gradients. The irrigation channels (kuhls) are diverted from river tributaries by making use of the natural gradients thus the level of water is higher than that of the cultivated fields.

Fig. 2.4 Bamboo pipe - commonly used for irrigation water flow on depressions/small nala from one field/terrace to another

In upper Kinnaur, the channels (kuhls) are simply dug in the ground to regulate the flow of water. However, where the digging of channels is difficult or the channel has to pass through a village path, underground channels covered with slates are constructed. However, in some parts the wooden channels are also used which are put like a bridge over the path. These channels are made by making a deep grove in the tree trunk or a thick branch.

Distribution of kuhl water in fields

In the cold deserts of Himachal Pradesh, participatory management is employed for distribution of water. All disputes regarding the distribution of water through kuhls (water channels) are amicably settled without hampering the water requirement of any period.

In the West Himalayan cold deserts, all the irrigation channels (Kuhls) cannot be run satisfactorily due to non-availability of sufficient water from Nallas/Khads. This is because of scanty snowfall during the winter months. The majority of hamlets, which lie on the plateaus on the sides of main river get water from the streams which trickles down from the cliffs overhanging the plateaus. These hamlets are the worst off for water, for in the year of scanty snowfall, the streams dwindle quickly and dry up in the beginning of August. Additional snowfall in winter results in less water in natural springs during the season, whereas less snowfall in winter result in the reduction of level in natural springs during summer and consequently crop suffer.

Kuhls are a time tested community made water channels for sharing the glacial water for ensuring cent per cent irrigation in otherwise dry and porous soils.

In Spiti valley, the farmers have developed the irrigation water distribution system on the basis of their land holdings, in which every field is irrigated timely. So there is no dispute regarding the maintenance of kuhls and irrigation water distribution.

In Kinnaur and other regions, nallas passing through a village are harvested on turn basis called pala. Temporary channels are dug by the farmers towards their fields. The whole community is divided on the basis of number of farm families and one family gets one full water day to irrigate their fields turnwise. For example, if there are 20 farm families in a village, the turn falls after every 20 days. But two adjoining families may share the water for half day each when there is turn of either of the two families. This way these two families get a chance to irrigate their fields after a gap of 10 days rather than 20 days. This way the distribution of water is so well managed that maximum use of water takes place in a particular village. The turn of a family comes/starts around 2000 to 2200 hrs on a particular day and all the members of the family are engaged in the job on its turn.

In upper Kinnaur, the irrigation technique is much more pronounced. The fields are generally divided into small compartments by making earth bunds to allow water to stand in the field for a longer duration for saturating the soil (Fig. 2.5). Hence need for second irrigation arises only after 20 to 25 days even in those agricultural crops which otherwise require irrigation after a gap of 10-15 days. At the first turn of irrigation, first compartment is irrigated; followed by second and so on. On the second turn of irrigation, however these compartments are irrigated in reverse order, i.e. sixth compartment is irrigated first followed by fifth and so on.

Fig. 2.5 Irrigation water application

In temperate areas of cold deserts crop cultivation without irrigation is not possible because precipitation takes place in the form of snowfall. People take advantage of glacial water and perform collective operations for effective distribution and ensured supply of this scarce source. The management of water in a particular field is regulated by apportioning into different compartments because of the season. The mouth of first compartment is closed to regulate the flow of water towards the second compartment (Fig. 2.6). The same method is adopted to irrigate the following compartment. This results in raising the height of channel in front of the first compartment than the channel in front of the second compartment and so on. Now when this field is irrigated during its second turn, the water flows straight towards the fourth compartment. This practice prevents the washing off the upper fertile layers during irrigation.

Fig. 2.6 Irrigation water distribution with provision of indigenous control system

In the entire Spiti valley, the first irrigation is done 40 days after sowing of crop takes place during April. In the initial stage of watering from the Kuhl to field, the ladies bring water to the field by the use of Urma which is made from animals horn. As per the turn pertaining the Baraghar watering/irrigation is done by constructing small beds in the fields. This method is time consuming and laborious. But on the other hand this method checks the loss of nutrients by leaching. Uniform watering of the plants with equal flow, checks the nutrient loss from field to field and from one bed to another. In Ladakh and other regions standardized irrigation schedule for different crops is followed.

The general schedule is:

Irrigation number

Stage of crop growth

Local name

English name


Tol Chu



Sak Chu



Non Chu



Gep Chu

Seed setting


Do Chu

Crop ready for harvest

The "Gep Chu" or 4th irrigation depends on the colour status of the crop. If crop seems yellow in colour "Gep Chu" is delayed. However, the colour position is blackish "Gep Chu" is hastened.

The farmers have developed irrigation schedule matching the stages of crop growth. Thus, irrigation during critical stages results in the maximization of crop yield as well as water use efficiency.

Use of kuhl water for running water mills

Kuhls are built along the hill gradient for maintaining proper gravity for irrigation and running water mills (Fig. 2.7a & b). Wooden water channels are also used for running water-flour mills. These wooden channels are generally made by making notches at the natural water sources and the water is diverted to the water mill, using the natural gravitational flow of water. Since the topography of the area consists of very high slopes and rocky terrain's, wooden water channels are used at many places as water passes from one place to another.

Granite stones are used for grinding food grains. Long wooden channel placed at steep gradient is used for maintaining the high speed of the water flow. This is necessary for maintaining the high speed of the water mills wheel (Fig. 2.7a/b).

Fig. 2.7a Water mill (outside)

Fig. 2.7a Water mill (inside)

Now a days water mills are very rare. Water mill technology is in an extinct stage, because of power supply availability and less grain production. Food is purchased from cooperative societies or private shops now a days.

Methods of irrigation

Flooding of glacial water for higher crop productivity

In most Himalayan cold deserts water is brought in channels from glacial melts for irrigating the fields. Flooding the fields with the glacial water for improving crop productivity is also common.

The deposition of fresh silt with unweathered minerals (especially lime) forms glacier source of fresh salts. The glacier melted water is often below 2°C which protects the crop from different kinds of diseases.

Indigenous drip irrigation

The practice of using pitcher water as a source of irrigation on new fruit plantation in sandy loam/loamy sand soils, in areas of canty rainfall is prevalent in temperate districts of Himachal Pradesh. The pitcher is placed in soil and the new plant is planted close to it. The pitcher is filled with water during summer months (April-June) and stone/slate lid is placed on the top. The roots draw moisture/water from pitcher which is turn reduces the mortality. The pitcher once filled, supply sufficient moisture for atleast two weeks and then again it is filled with water.

Bamboo drip irrigation system

In this system of irrigation bamboo channels (open) are used for irrigating the fields (Fig. 2.8). This system is common in North-East regions of India. Small holes are made at the internodes of open bamboo channels, from where water gets trickled down in the field. These channels are placed along the natural gradients. In these channels, no uniform head for water trickling is maintained.

Fig. 2.8 Bamboo drip irrigation system

Manual irrigation in vegetables

In the initial stage of watering vegetables, people bring water to their fields with the help of buckets (Fig. 2.9) and in Spiti valley ladies bring water to their fields using Urma which is made from animals horn. In this method after bringing water in buckets, water is supplied to the vegetables with the help of lota (mug), whereas in case of Urma, irrigation is done by constructing small beds in the fields. But this method is too laborious and time consuming.

Fig. 2.9 Hand watering in vegetables

Water harvesting methods

Small ponds for spring water collection

Another method is the collection of spring water in small reservoirs scattered at intervals on the high uplands and then drawing water from these ponds when required (Fig. 2.10a, b & c). It is a common practice in cold deserts and temperate wet Himalayas. Water from these ponds is used for irrigating crops and also for drinking purposes.

Fig. 2.10a Well planned spring irrigation water distribution in field

Fig. 2.10b Village spring water pond for drinking water

Fig. 2.10c A tank of spring water 'Bawri'

Harvesting of dew and fog water

In plains and in valleys occurrence of dew and "pale" is very common after the receding of monsoon. After monsoon the humidity remains quite high (85%) in the atmosphere. During night time, temperature falls down sharply resulting in the formation of more water molecules from vaporous. As they are heavier, they fall on soil surface and make the layer moist and wet.

In the hills, there is traditional practice to plough the fields early in the morning before dew or fog water is evaporated. By ploughing, moisture is mixed with soil particles in the plough layer i.e. 9"-12". This moisture is well retained by soil. If soil is clayey in nature, retention of water remains for a longer time and becomes a source of soil moisture. It is quite useful for land preparation in October-November and for the sowing of rabi crops like wheat, barley and pulses.

Roof water harvesting

In the lower areas of Himachal Pradesh during the rainy season, roof water is collected in dugout structures which are known as "diggi" in Kangra district and '"Khati" in Hamirpur and Bilaspur districts (Fig. 2.11). These structures are dug in hard rocks. Not only roof water but also surface water is collected in dugout structures.

Fig. 2.11 Water harvesting in dugout structure called 'khati' or 'diggi''

Harvesting of rain water

In the hills, rains are erratic and torrential. Relatively high percentage of rain water goes as run-off and stream flow. It carries fertile soil and plant nutrients which makes the soil degraded and barren. In some areas this excess water is stored directly in the farm ponds, depression or stream flow or is diverted to safer points where it is stored (Fig. 2.12a, b & c).

Fig. 2.12a Water harvesting

Fig. 2.12b Water harvesting

The stored water in ponds and depressions is used for irrigational purposes, as a life saver or for supplementary irrigation during lean periods. It is also stored in dugout structures. In some areas during summer, it is used as drinking water humans, livestock and for other domestic purposes.

Fig. 2.12c Village rain water pond for irrigation and livestock

The ponds with time are sealed, with silt and clay particles thus infiltration/percolation losses are reduced and ponding time and volume of water is increased.

Harvesting of water from snow melting

Harvesting of water is also done by constructing water ponds and water is collected in these ponds from melting snow (Fig. 2.13).

Use of Pang (Spang) Grass for Controlling Seepage and Side Losses in Water Tanks and Irrigation Kuhls.

Fig. 2.13 Village water pond where water is collected from snow melting

In Ladakh Pang (Spang) grass is used as the inner lining of zings (water ponds) and irrigation kuhls for checking percolation losses (Fig. 2.14a & b). The use of spang grass which is growing profusely in Ladakh, explains its non-permeability properties similar to that of polythene sheet or cement lining. Its chemistry is required to be analysed, as the farmers claim its utility in water retention is far superior than the polythene/cement.

Fig. 2.14a Village water pond where Pang (spang) grass is used. for controlling seepage losses

Fig. 2.14b Village water pond

Moisture conservation through mulching

In Kinnaur, covering the surface of soil with chilgoza tree needles and grass from the Kandas (hill tops) is a common mulching practice (Fig. 2.15). Mulching conserves soil moisture in the fields. It also helps in the moderation of soil temperature. In this way hydro-thermal regime of soil is improved. However, the continuous use of chilgoza tree needles increases the acidity of the soil.

Fig. 2.15 In situ moisture conservation with locally available tree leaves and grasses

In the hilly areas, ploughing is done, which aids in moisture conservation, as the soil acts as mulch.

In Ladakh, farmers regulate optimum irrigation by inserting a belcha (spade) in the soil If it is completely inserted (front portion), the land is considered to be properly irrigated. Similarly, in a few other cases, mud is thrown in the air. Its splitting into pieces shows proper irrigation. Complete insertion of the. front portion of belcha (spade) or throwing of mud in the air and its consequent splitting into pieces indicate the soil moisture level at field capacity, where 100 per cent moisture is available to the crops.


During rainy season the rains are torrential, which causes splash erosion resulting in the sorting of particles and the formation of false compact layer on the surface. It yields water pounding and subsequently water logging. Crops such as maize, capsicum, tomato which are grown during this season are very sensitive to water logging. In our traditional agriculture there is a common practice that during the preparation of a field the slope of a field, is kept inside which is provided with a channel to take excess water from that field to a safer place, from where it is disposed to stream or nalla through grassed water ways. The grassed water ways are kept permanently and help in the drainage. These channels and grassed water ways are positioned in such a way that they do not hinder any agricultural activity such as ploughing, hoeing and harvesting.

Use of smoke for protecting fruit crops from frost damage

In the lower areas of Himachal Pradesh, Mango plants are mostly damaged by frost injury during winter months i.e. December and January (Fig. 2.16). Smoke layer protects the mango plants from frost injury. This practice is common in the lower areas of Himachal Pradesh.

Fig. 2.16 Effect of smoke on frost

Soil management

Cultural practices

In West Himalayan region, in the month of March/April, when snow melts and weather condition improves, the bunds and comers of the fields are dug-out and weeds and grasses are removed with the help of spade and clods. The grasses or weeds are beaten up and then soil is separated from these clods and collected in lower fields.

This practice of removing weeds and grasses from bunds and corners by digging helps in weed control in the cultivated fields. Secondly area under crops remains the same as that of previous crop i.e. area is not wasted for weeds and grasses. Thirdly the soil added in lower fields from the bunds of upper field is rich in nutrients and it improves the soil fertility.

Use of broader plough in upper valleys

Ploughs are broadened in Ladakh by attaching flat wooden pieces to both sides of the iron blade. This indigenous plough is preferred over the one available in the market.

This technology seems to have twofold functions of saving labour and that of stabilizing the loose sandy strata in one ploughing action, which suits the small terraces.

Sheet erosion control

It is not a damaging form of erosion, mainly because it is often not recognised and seldom treated. It accounts for the loss of billions of tonnes of soil every year. Due to splash of rain drops particles are knocked loose and then carried away by the runoff. The sheet erosion result into rill and gullies which are controlled by very cheap treatments. Sheet erosion is more apparent in forest areas that are devoid of ground cover or wastelands with very few standing trees.

There is traditional practice to keep surface maximum covered with grasses, shrubs etc., grazing is done in rotation and is allowed only during certain times. It is avoided during the flowering and seed setting stages of grasses. Fibrous rooted shrubs and grasses planted as hedges along the contour of the land slow the runoff, weaken the erosive power of water and cause it to deposit its load of valuable soil behind the hedgerows. As a result the runoff proceeds gently down the slope where hedges have been planted at the correct vertical interval without erosive effect In the foot hills, erosive capacity of stream flow is also reduced by spurs of loose boulders.

Traditional rainfed farming

In the hilly areas, most of the area is rainfed except for a few pockets in valleys where irrigation facilities are existing. The choice of crop and rotation, completely depends on crops which require less volume of water. For rotation, legumes are important as mixed crop. During rotation, when rainy season erosion permitting crops are grown, such as cowpea, 'kuth', these form integral part of the mixed cropping system. The crops are chosen as per their nutrition e.g. from old ages protein rich pulses are part of cropping pattern. The coarse grains like 'phaphra', 'chulai' are also grown very commonly which are very rich in nutrition.

Within the premises of the house it is mandatory to have fruit plants such as citrus, mango, anar which provide seasonal fruits rich in vitamin C., carbohydrates etc. The fields are well protected with biofence of thorny shrubs or their cut pieces.

The traditional rainfed farming is done irrespective of land with respect to slope and other characteristics. There are chances of sheet erosion but with traditional knowledge, crop rotation is adopted in such a way that during peak runoff periods sowing of close growing crops provide protection to the soil.


From old times, land in the hills has been put under cultivation on scientific lines as cultivation is done up to 25-100 degree slope, where there are many chances of landslips, sheet and gully erosion. But with 'bench terracing practices' the menace of soil erosion is controlled and is very common in hill fanning.

The terraces are constructed across the slope i.e. along the contour (Fig. 2.17a, b, c, d, e, f, g & h). The size of the terrace is decided by the prevailing degree of slope. The terraces are supported by risers of suitable heights and width. The height of riser is again decided by the degree of slope. The risers are sometime made of loose boulders supported by grasses. The roots of grasses help in binding and keeping the boulders intact at a place. The roots of grasses help in drainage of excess water. With the traditional knowledge, farmers are keeping the risers toward inner slopes. In paddy growing areas the risers are erected to facilitate the pounding of water in the field. This type of bunding and terracing is continuing from centuries and terraces are still intact. The bunds are again used for growing palatable grasses which is used as fodder for livestock and trees are meant for fuel, fodder and fibre. The examples are beul, shisham, mango etc. In lower areas the bench terraces are known as "khet". Sometime on the risers contour hedge of grass like khus, local grasses also established.

Fig. 2.17a Stone terrace making

Fig. 2.17b Stone terrace wall

Fig. 2.17c Traditional symmetrical terraces

Fig. 2.17.d Terrace slicing in crop field

Fig. 2.17e Earthen terraces

Fig. 2.17f Crop field terraces and community forestry

Fig. 2.17g Stone terraces along the slope

Fig. 2.17h Bench terrace fortified with vegetative measures

Use of maddim (a plain wooden structure) for field levelling.

Maddim is used for levelling ploughed lands. A heavy stone is put on the maddim for increasing the pressure required for levelling. Sometimes, a man may also sit instead of a heavy stone.

Such an indigenous technology for field levelling is called planking. With this practice, there is very good seed soil contact and very good germination of the crops. Secondly, there is moisture conservation in the fields. Thirdly small soil clods are pressed and broken into finer particles and this way soil structure is improved.

Curved land ploughing for intensive land preparation; soil conservation and water retention

In west Himalayan cold deserts, ploughing is done in a curved (sword like) manner from the bottom to the top of the slopy land holdings.

Ploughing land holdings in a sword like pattern ensures proper land preparation which includes proper ploughing of the corners which otherwise would have remained unploughed. The ploughing of slopy lands from bottom to top also helps in soil conservation as it checks the loosened soil strata falling from the upper side to the lower. The curved pattern is useful in maintaining infiltration rate of water which otherwise gets wasted with sudden runoff.

Conserving productive soil layer against wind erosion

In west Himalayan cold deserts, fields are irrigated in autumn so that the top layer is prevented from being blown away. In spring the moistened soil eases ploughing.

The productive soil layer, which is very thin, needs conservation against heavy wind erosion, a common feature of the cold deserts. This appropriate soil conservation technique also helps in easy and timely ploughing for meeting the requirement of short growing season. The moist upper layer of soil which gets frozen in winter also serves as a protection against wind erosion.

Cultivation of levelled/flat lands for preventing soil erosion

In west Himalayan cold deserts, cultivation practices are confined to the levelled/flat lands only.

This practice helps not only in the rational land use but also checks soil erosion in otherwise sandy and loose strata.

Contouring of slopy lands: Ethno-engineering for soil conservation

In west Himalayan cold deserts farmers have developed this technology for cultivation of slopy lands by constructing terraces comprising of plots and sub-plots by using small stones. Stone wall fencing is also constructed for individual land holdings. Terracing of slopy lands helps in conserving soil and moisture and prevents soil erosion. This also helps to carry out other field operations including proper use of irrigation water for checking the surface runoff.

Use of loose boulders spurs for reducing soil erosion

In some areas, people use loose boulders spurs for reducing the cutting effect of stream flow in a small nalla (Choes) (Fig. 2.18).

Fig. 2.18 Loose boulders spurs - reduce cutting effect of stream flow in 'choes'

Use of loose boulders diversion dam with spillway in centre for reducing soil erosion

This method is very common in lower areas of Himachal Pradesh (Fig. 2.19). These dams are constructed across the streams for controlling soil loss.

Use of vegetation, live check of bamboo pieces and loose boulders

In this method of vegetation, live check of bambo pieces and loose boulders are used for controlling gully erosion (Fig. 2.20). This practice is also common in lower areas.

Fig. 2.19. Loose boulders diversion dam with spillway in the centre

Fig. 2.20 Gully plugging by

a) Vegetation
b) Live check
c) Loose boulders stabilized with grasses

Use of river bed soils

The river bed soils are used for raising crops (Fig. 2.21). These soils are rich in nutrients as nutrients are removed with soil from hilly slopes and are deposited in the river beds.

Fig. 2.21 Recovering river bed soil

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.

Use of ash in Ladakh

i) Nutrient recycling

The inhabitants of this entire region use cattle dung, shrubs and bushes as the main source of fuel. Ashes available, there upon, are mixed either with household waste or human excreta. Sometimes ashes are also broadcasted in the fields.

Mixing of ash with household waste and human excreta aids in nutrient availability and recycling. Ash primarily meets the deficiency of potash. Availability of phosphorus is also ensured. In addition to this, human excreta and household waste also contains good amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

ii) Softening of hard soils

In Nubra valley, hard soils are softened by putting ash obtained from cowdung, sheep/goat manure, fuelwood etc.

Through this practice upper layers of soils are not only softened but their fertility status is also improved, as ash contains phosphorus.

iii) Increased size of potatoes through the use of ash and goat manure

A mixture of kitchen ash and goat manure is used in kitchen gardens (Nubra valley) for growing potatoes.

The spreading of this mixture as an organic manure, increases the size of potatoes on account of optimum supply of nutrients in otherwise nutrient deficient soils. Secondly organic manure improves the soil structure, porosity and water holding capacity of the soils. In this way there is an overall improvement in physical, chemical and biological properties like microbial population etc., which has increased the size of potatoes.

iv) Poultry manure and ash for increased vegetable production

This specific technology is used only in case of tomato, brinjal, capsicum and cauliflower. Kitchen ash and poultry manure mix enhances vegetable production levels.

Stage of farm yard manure in cultivated fields

In west Himalayan cold deserts, FYM with a thin coverage of soil is kept in small heaps in the fields from October to March. With the onset of summer months it is spread in the open field.

Coverage of organic manure (FYM) with soil in open fields throughout winter helps in regulating (heap) temperature necessary for proper decomposition of FYM.

Green manuring

In Bharmour area the practice of green manuring is localized in a few villages (paddy growing). Leaves and twigs of wild bushes such as basuti and kaimal are used.

Use of goat manure

In Ladakh, goat manure is considered to be more nutritious. Goat manure when added to millet fields improves production. Goats are specially penned in these plots/fields.

Goat manure improves not only the millet production but also its taste. According to farmers vegetables grown in goat manure have longer keeping quality. It is easy to plough fields manured with goat excreta. Actually with the addition of goat excreta, there is improvement in the physical properties like soil structure, water holding capacity and porosity. There is also an improvement in soil fertility as it contains 3% nitrogen, 1% phosphorus and 2% potassium.

Use of sachik soil for higher crop yield

Yellow soil (Sachik) found in Tagloom area is used as manure for enhancing crop production. Yak loads of this yellowish/dark brown coloured soil are scattered in the fields.

Biofencing with seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

This practice is prevalent in Spiti and other regions. There is a common practice to provide biofencing with seabuckthorn in cold deserts in general and Spiti in particular (Fig. 2.28).

The biofence of seabuckthorn being thorny in nature protects crop from stray animals. Its multipurpose utility as a nitrogen fixer, checks against soil erosion, conservation of soil and moisture, source of fuelwood and indigenous drug (rich source of vitamin C) makes it a promising plants for eco-economic rehabilitation of the region.

Fig. 2.28 Biofence - common in hills and is of thorny shrubs/cut piece of thorny plants

Sprawling of ash dust in cucurbits and other vegetable crops

In the west Himalayan cold deserts, ash dust is a product obtained after the combustion of fuelwood. It has been observed that dusting of material in the fields enhance early maturity and high yield of vegetable crops.

The reason for the early maturity of cucurbits and vegetable crops is due to the fact that ash dust contains sufficient quantity of phosphorus in available form to the plants. Secondly, in cucurbits the ash dust has been used to repel the insect pest of the crops. Thirdly, amendments of ash dust in the soil, improves soil structure and fertility. Ash dust is also useful in enhancing the maturity of bulb crops which normally takes 6-7 months for obtaining economic yield.

Drought power according to soil texture

In west Himalayan cold deserts, ploughing is generally carried out by dzos, however in sandy situations horses are employed for its speedy completion. In Turpuk of Nubra valley ploughing is done by a single horse.

Sandy soil have less soil strength than clayey soil. Due to this reason, the drought power requirement for ploughing varies according to soil texture.

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