Sheep penning is one of the traditional methods of enhancing soil fertility. Penning is a fascinating cooperative effort between pastoralists and farmers. Sheep penning which is almost a forgotten practice, is still being followed by some farmers in Telangana.
Jowli Osman Saheb is a 55-year-old native of Devanakonda village, Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh. He owns 7 acres of agricultural land out of which 4 acres are irrigated and remaining are rainfed. His livestock includes a pair of bullocks, 3 buffaloes, 4 goats and 2 hens. Dairying is an important secondary livelihood for this family.
Osman prefers to have crop diversity on his farm. He says “patti yegili, mirapa yegili and shanaga yegili valla aakurali bhoomiki balam vasthundi” (mixed cropping systems of the region where groundnut, chillies and cotton crops are predominant, soil fertility is improved through leaf fall). “Stubble incorporation along with roots adds fertility to soil”, says Osman. According to him, when crop stubbles decompose well in the soil, the increased fertility is as good as the fertility provided by complex fertilizers.
Like other farmers, Osman has his own method of assessing soil fertility using a wide range of parameters including feel, colour and touch. For instance, a fertile soil when touched by hand gives a soft feel; in less fertile soils when ploughing is done, the clods break and become powder whereas, in fertile soils the clods do not disintegrate easily. Soil fertility is also reflected by the type of grass which grows. While grasses like thunga, pedda gunaka, jonna aakula gaddi etc., indicate fertile soil, the presence of grasses like uppu gaddi, boo amma gaddi, banka gaddi indicates that soils are less fertile.
Osman adopts a wide range of soil fertility management practices which are organic in nature. These diverse practices include more number of summer ploughings (seduvu cheyuta), Sheep penning (gorlu aapadam), application of Farm Yard Manure (pashuvula yeruvu), fertility improvement through groundnut cultivation to facilitate leaf drop (verushanaga yegili), crop rotation (panta marpidi), ploughing back crop leftovers after harvesting (magi dunnatam), mixed cropping (Mishrama pantalu), green leaf manuring in the paddy fields (Vari madilo aakulu thokkedi). The farmer also uses small quantities of pig manure, mixes it with neem cake and makes into a shape of a ball and places it near “Madu bhai” (i.e., water entry point for each plot) so that it enriches the fertility and controls pest. Sheep penning is the most favoured practice and commonly practiced by Osman.
Penning is a fascinating cooperative effort between pastoralists and farmers. Sheep penning is usually done between November and June and can be adopted both in irrigated and dryland conditions. According to Osman, 25 percent of the cultivable area (400acres) in Devanakonda village is covered by penning every year.
The number of sheep in one flock will be ranging between 1000-4000. Bigger flocks have 4000 sheep and owned by 10-15 people. The penning time starts at six in the evening. Before it gets dark sheep are brought to one place as the kids have to be left with their mothers. Penning can be adopted in all kinds of soils. Any crop can be grown after sheep penning.
In Devanakonda village, farmers mostly cultivate groundnut after penning. The groundnut crop of penned fields is of different colour as compared to the crop in unpenned field which looks white in colour. “D.A.P yentha power undho, gorreleruvukooda antha birruna andisthundi”, says, Osman (The fertility given by penning to the soil is quick in nature and is equal to the fertility given by DAP to the soil). The yield of penned field is 25-30 bags/acre where as in unpenned field it is 15-20 bags/acre. Based on his experience, Osman says, “If sheep manure and FYM is applied to groundnut crop, the weight of the pods will be more.”
Osman highlights the role of sheep penning in improving soil structure and pest management by saying, “Tuvva chenlo aapithe gorrelu thokki bhoomi biguvosthadi, varshamlo kooda aapithe veru purugu kottadi.” (In the soft soils, if the trampling is done with sheep due to penning, the soil particles get bit closer giving grip per plant, and if penning is done in rains it kills the root grub). The root grub dies due to the power of sheep urine. In tuvva (soft) soils after penning, horse gram is grown which acts as a good fodder for animals. “We just sow the seeds of horse gram, and no weeding is done. But, we still get 5 quintals of grain,” says Osman Saheb.
There is a tradition of compensating the shepherds during the penning, either by cash, kind or both. The farmer in whose field penning is being done, would supply food materials, two times a day. Shepherds cook on their own. In the morning, they are given 20 kgs of foxtail-millet (Korra) and tamarind chutney. More quantities are given in the evening as they have to feed the dogs as well. During penning, dogs guard the sheep during night. These dogs watch over a radius of 1 km when the sheep graze in the fields. The dogs live along with the sheep from the beginning. The dogs are raised with a power to kill fox, wolf and rabbits.
If one owns large number of sheep, the owner needs to feed the care taker of the sheep for just one month. For the remaining 11 months, the farmers who invite sheep for penning will be feeding the care takers.
Sheep penning – merits and impacts
– The penned field will be fertile. Due to the manure of sheep, activity of 10 different type of organisms increase in the soil which makes it more porous.
– There will be less grass except for few acacia plants which can be easily pulled off.
– Sheep can identify the saline patches. It’s urine reduces salinity in the soil.
– The hibiscus grown in farmyard manure applied fields and the sheep penned fields, when cooked even without using any oil, is tastier and unique as compared to the chemically grown hibiscus.
– The weight of the grains from the penned fields is more.
– The crop in the penned field looks different compared to unpenned fields.
The cost of penning varies between Rs 1,000-1,200 per acre. Besides the advantages of improved soil health, the sheep are also considered as a source of quick cash and can be sold when in need of money. Speaking about the significance of sheep rearing, Osman says “padi yekarala bhoomi undedhokate, nalpai gorlundedhokate’’(40 sheep give equal benefit as that of 10 acres of land). Osman feels that it is high time that policy makers give due attention to safeguard such practices and also effectively propagate several indigenous soil fertility enhancement methods.
B Sriveda and B Srihitha
Student – B.A II year Journalism and Mass Communication, St.Francis college for Women, Begumpet, Hyderabad, Telangana
B.A(Hons.) – Economics I year, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, New Delhi.