The Soil, the living soil, working the soil


Twenty-three titles have been published in this series, designed as handbooks for intermediate level agricultural education and training. They may be purchased as a set or as individual documents.

1. The way to work. The living plant

2. The plant – the root

3. The plant – the stem

4. The plant – the leaf

5. The plant – the flower

6. The soil – man and the soil

7. The soil – how the soil is made up

8. The soil – the living soil – working the soil

9. The soil – working the soil (continued)

10. The soil – conserving the soil – improving the soil

11. Animal husbandry – introduction

12. Animal husbandry – feeding animals

13. Animal husbandry – looking after animals – how cattle reproduce

14. Animal husbandry – what cattle produce

15. Keeping chickens

16. Food crops

17. Market gardening

18. The oil palm

19. Groundnuts

20. Upland rice

21. Wet paddy or swamp rice

22. Cocoa

23. Coffee

Better Farming Series    8

The Soil

— The Living Soil[
**]— Working the Soil

Published by arrangement with the Institut africain pour le développement économique et social


Rome 1970

© French edition, lnstitut africain pour le développement économique et social (INADES) 1967

© English edition, FAO 1970


  1. Preface
  2. Outline Of Course
  3. The living soil
    1. How soil is formed
    2. How soil changes
    3. Plants change the soil
    4. Living creatures change the soil
    5. The soil can be destroyed
    6. Brush fires
    7. Why we must not make brush fires
  4. Working the soil
    1. Why work the soil?
    2. What is the soil worked with?
    3. Hand tools
    4. Animal-powered implements
    5. Mechanized equipment
  5. Suggested question paper


The text of this manual is a translation and adaptation of “Le sol – la vie du sol; le travail du sol,” published by the Agri-Service-Afrique of the Institut africain pour le développement économique et social (INADES), and forms part of a series of 23 booklets. Grateful acknowledgement is made to the publishers for making available this text, which it is hoped will find widespread use at the intermediate level of agricultural education and training in English-speaking countries.

It should be noted that the original texts were originally prepared for an African environment and this is naturally reflected in the English version. However, it is expected that many of the manuals of the series — a list of which will be found on the inside front cover — will also be of value for training in many other parts of the world. Adaptations can be made to the text where necessary owing to different climatic and ecological conditions.

Applications for permission to issue this manual in other languages are welcomed. Such applications should be addressed to: Director, Publications Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Via delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100, Rome, Italy.

The cover illustrations were prepared by Asun Balzola.


• The living soil

How soil is formed

How soil changes

Plants change the soil

Living creatures change the soil

The soil can be destroyed

Brush fires

Why we must not make brush fires

• Working the soil

Why work the soil?

What is the soil worked with?

Hand tools

Animal-powered implements

Mechanized equipment

• Suggested question paper




• Read pages 4 to 9.

• What crops make the soil poor where you live?

• Look at the work done in the earth by earthworms, termites, ants.

• Pull up a cowpea plant, a bean or groundnut plant. Take a good look at the roots. What do you see?



• Reread pages 4 to 9.

• Read pages 10 to 14.

• Look around you at soils carried away by erosion. Why are certain soils carried away more than others?

• Do they make brush fires where you live? Try to find out why.

At what season do they make brush fires? Why?



• Read pages 15 to 21.

• Look at the farm tools where you live.

Are they the same as they were in the old days?

• Is the work on the soil well done?

• Who makes the tools where you live? Who sells them?



• Read pages 22 and 23.

• Is animal power used for farming where you live? Why?

• Reread the whole booklet.

You must be sure to understand that working the soil is important for the life of the soil.

Answer the question paper.


1. Some soils are better than others: they are deeper and richer.

A rich soil can become poor if it is badly cultivated. A poor soil can become richer, if manure and fertilizer are given, and if it is allowed to rest for a while, that is, left fallow.

The soil can be formed, can change, can be destroyed.


2. Rain as it falls strikes rock and takes away little grains of the rock — the soil is being formed.

Rain and wind carry away these little grains.

The sun dries the rock, which cracks.

Wind, rain and sun decompose the rock — the soil is being formed.

Rock is very hard.

It takes a very long time to decompose it, to form the soil.

3. On very hard rock nothing grows.

But there is a little earth in holes in the rock. Certain plants can grow. The roots of these plants can make the holes in the rock bigger.

4. When plants die

They leave organic matter and mineral salts in the holes in the rock.

Other plants can grow.

New cracks form, the rock decomposes more and more.

Rain, wind, sun and plants decompose the rock.

On the parent rock a layer of soil forms. It takes hundreds of years to form soil.

5. In savanna country there is less rain.

The rocks decompose less quickly.

Savanna soils are less deep than forest soils.


Plants change the soil

6. A plant takes water and mineral salts from the soil When a plant dies it leaves organic matter.

From the organic matter come humus and mineral salts.

Other plants can grow, using these mineral salts.

7. Water and mineral salts enter the soil.

The soil gives them back to the plant.

The soil receives and gives — it is alive.

If the soil gives a lot and receives little, it becomes poorer.

This happens, for instance, with crops of yam and cassava.

If the soil receives as much as it gives, it can be cultivated for a long time, as, for instance, with crops of beans and cowpeas.

If the soil receives a lot and gives little, it becomes richer.

While it lies fallow the soil receives all the dead plants, and it becomes richer.

The soil can change. It can become poorer or richer.


8. Earthworms

There are a lot of worms in the soil.

If we put together all the worms living in a hectare of soil, they would make a big heap and would weigh as much as two oxen.

Worms eat the remains of plants that are mixed with the earth.

Worms also eat a lot of earth.

You often see on the surface of the soil the little heaps of earth that the worms have left.

Worms make lots of holes in the soil.

Water and air pass through these holes.

Worms improve the structure of the soil.

By making holes and by eating earth, worms mix humus, sand, silt and clay. They work the soil like the farmer with his hoe.

So earthworms are very useful in the soil.

9. Rats and other animals

Rats, rabbits and lots of other animals dig big holes. These animals eat roots, young stems and leaves.

They are not useful.

10. Termites

Termites destroy dead plants by digging holes in them.

For instance, they destroy wood.

Part of the organic matter remains on the spot, mixes with the soil, and produces humus.

The rest is taken away by the termites to their nests. Termites go deep into the soil to get fine earth. They bring it up to make their nests.

When a nest is destroyed, the fine earth is mixed with the cultivable layer. This layer becomes thicker.

But termites’ nests are sometimes very big and very hard. They are a nuisance to the farmer.

11. Other insects

In the soil there are also many other insects such as ants and caterpillars.

These insects disturb the soil as worms do and decompose organic matter.

Certain insects eat leaves or roots and kill the plants.

Insects, whether they are good or bad, change the soil.

12. Microbes

We saw that there are very many microbes in the soil. Certain microbes transform organic matter into humus.

13. Other microbes bring nitrogen to plants.

We know that leaves get carbon from the air.

There is also nitrogen in the air.

To grow, plants need nitrogen. But leaves cannot take nitrogen from the air.

In the soil there are microbes that can take the nitrogen in the air for their own nourishment.

When these microbes die, they remain in the soil and decompose.

The microbes’ nitrogen is transformed into mineral salts.

The roots of plants can absorb these mineral salts through the root hairs.

14. Everywhere in the soil there are microbes that can take in nitrogen.

Some of them gather on plant roots, where they form little beads, or nodules.

The microbes in these little beads bring nitrogen to the plants.

Not all plants have these little beads.

They are found only on plants of the legume family. Groundnuts, Dolichos bean, Crotalaria, beans, peas, Stylosanthes are all legumes.


15. By erosion

Rain and wind can carry away the top layers of soil. This is erosion.

Erosion is more severe if the soil structure is bad.

16. By farming

Crops make the soil poorer.

After several crops have been grown, the soil must be allowed to rest.

In addition, fertilizers and manure can be applied to make the soil richer.

If the soil is cultivated too much and if nothing is done to maintain and improve its fertility:

it becomes very poor,

the soil structure becomes bad,

erosion is severe.

17. By animals

When cattle remain too long in the same place, the grass does not have time to grow again; it is eaten as soon as it grows.

The soil is also spoiled by the feet of the animals always herded on the same piece of land.

If animals are left too long on the same piece of land:

the grass does not grow,

the soil becomes poor,

the soil structure becomes bad,

erosion is severe.

18. By drought

If there is no rain, the plants do not grow and the soil does not get much organic matter.

It cannot make much humus.

Heat makes humus decompose very quickly.

Places with a long dry season have soils poor in humus.

But the soil is not destroyed the same way in savanna country as in the forest.

19. In savanna country

The third layer of soil can change into a hardpan or a layer of pebbles.

If erosion carries away the cultivable layer, there is only the hardpan left.

In the dry season the sun makes this hardpan very hard.

It cannot be cultivated any more.

20. In the forest

Erosion can also carry away the first two layers of soil.

The third layer does not become hard, but it is very poor.

Plants will not grow well.


During the dry season many plants die. They are left on top of the soil and burned. This is called a brush fire.

21. Why do we make brush fires?

• To clear the land

The fire cleans the field and work is easier.

• For hunting

Animals are afraid of the fire and take flight. They are caught and eaten.

• To make the grass grow again

Cattle do not want to eat dry grass. After the fire, the green grass grows and the cattle eat it.

• To protect the following crop

Many little animals, such as agoutis, rats and insects, spoil crops.

The fire kills them. They will not attack the next crop. The fire also burns diseased plants. They will not pass the disease to the next crop.

• To walk more easily in the bush

The fire burns tall grasses.

It is easier to get about.

[]Why we must not make brush fires

22. Fire destroys organic matter.

Plants burned by the fire do not yield any humus. After the fire there is nothing left but ashes.

Wind and rain can carry them away.

Humus enriches the soil and improves its structure. Ashes enrich the soil, but do not improve its structure.

23. Fire leaves the soil bare.

When the land is burned at the end of the dry season, the growth of grass is seriously affected; the soil is too dry.

The first rains are often very heavy.

They fall on to bare soil.

They easily carry it away.

Erosion is more severe after brush fires.

24. Fire destroys good plants.

After the fire a lot of plants die.

Often the good plants die more easily than the bad ones.

Each year bad plants take the place of good plants. In this way savanna takes the place of forest.

25. Fire is dangerous.

Often whole plantations are destroyed — of coffee trees, for instance, or of oil palms.

Often houses and barns are burned, sometimes the whole village.

Because of fire many soils have often become poor.

The brush fire is bad. If we want to stop it, we must:

26. Destroy insects, small animals and diseases by using chemical products.

Bury weeds by ploughing.

Feed animals during the dry season with hay.

27. But farmers do not always have the equipment and chemical products.

Many of them must still make fires.

However, they can prevent the fire becoming too bad. How?

If the fire is lit at the beginning of the dry season, the fire is not so fierce and not everything is burned, and the grass has time to grow again.

Then the soil will not be bare at the beginning of the rainy season.

When a farmer cannot get the good results of fire by other means, he should make brush fires at the beginning of the dry season.


We have studied

• how air and water move in the soil,

• how the soil is made up,

• how the soil forms, changes and is destroyed.

We are going to study

• why the soil must be worked,

• what with,

• and how.

Good crops need a lot of work.


28. To get good crops

Before sowing or planting, the soil must be prepared: that is, the land must be cleared and worked.

When the plants begin to grow, all the weeds must be removed.

If the soil is too hard, the farmer works the land: water and air penetrate the soil better.

29. To protect the soil

The farmer makes ridges so that the rain will not carry the soil away.

The farmer applies organic matter to improve the structure of the soil.

Soil that is well protected can be cultivated for several years.


30. The soil can be worked

• by hand, with a few simple tools, such as the hoe or machete;

• by using the power of animals, such as oxen, donkeys, horses, camels to work with animal-drawn implements;

• with mechanized equipment, such as tractors.


31. A farmer usually works his field with hand tools. There are different kinds of tools.

They change with the work to be done, the customs of each region, the kind of soil. Twelve commonly used tools are shown on pages 18, 19 and 20.

There are tools

32. for turning over the soil

After being cleared, the land must be prepared for sowing.

It must be tilled, that is, turned over.

Usually this work is done with a digging hoe.

The hoe must be fairly heavy, in order to penetrate the soil well, even if it is rather hard.

This work can also be done with a spade or spading fork.

With these tools the soil can be turned over better, and the organic matter buried.

33. for making ridges

A shovel hoe is used; it lifts the earth to be put in ridges or mounds.

34. for removing weeds

For this the tools used are much lighter.

The handles are longer, and there is less need to stoop.

With a cultivator the soil is scratched and weeds removed.

A small hoe cuts the roots of weeds that have grown.

35. for litting roots

A three-pronged lifting fork is used to lift cassava and other roots.

With it the soil can be scratched to get the roots out.

36. for straw and grass

A scythe can be used to cut grass or straw.

To move grass and straw a fork is used, with three or four long curved tines.

37. for digging out earth and making ditches

A shovel is used to move earth.

The shovel has a long handle like the fork.

A lot of work can be done with it.

38. for making rows

When sowing or planting, really straight rows have to be made.

To make these rows a marker is used.

This is a wooden bar with spikes; each spike marks a row.

To make sure the first row is really straight, a string is stretched between two pegs. The marker is drawn along the string.

39. It is best to have a tool for each job.

That way the work is done better and is less tiring. If all the work is done with only one or two tools, the work is less well done.

40. Tools that penetrate the soil such as the hoe and the spade must be heavy. Then they penetrate better.

On the other hand the other tools, the fork, shovel, cultivator, should be light.

41. You must learn to use new tools

There are new tools that make it possible to do the work better, to do it more quickly and less tiringly.

When you see tools you do not know, in other places, at experiment stations or on pilot farms, you must take a good look at them.

You may be able to buy them, or make them yourself. The village blacksmith may also be able to make them. Do not be afraid of changing your ways when you see that a new tool is useful.


42. Ploughing, cultivating and transport can be done by animal-powered implements.

With animal power, farming is better.

Bigger fields can be made.

The harvest will be bigger.

The farmer will be able to pay for the oxen and tools. He will have more money left over than with traditional farming.

43. But to farm with animal power you have to:

• feed your oxen or donkey well.

If animals are well fed, they are strong.

They can do the work more easily.

• keep food in reserve for the dry season

If the animals get thin during the dry season, they will not be strong at ploughing time.

• take good care of the animals

so that they don’t get ill.

A shelter can be made to protect them in the rainy season.

• train the animals — teach them to work

• take care of the implements

For instance, worn or broken iron parts of the plough must be changed, and bent parts must be straightened.

More can be earned by farming with animal-powered implements.

But you have to learn how to do it properly.


44. With a tractor

Work is done more quickly; the tractor can work all day; it does not get tired as animals do.

Sowing is not delayed.

Bigger fields can be ploughed.

Heavy things can be carried.

45. But it needs a lot of money to buy the tractor and tools, to buy the fuel and oil, to pay for repairs.

You must know how to:

• drive the tractor properly;

• make good use of the tools;

• do repairs when there is no garage in the village. To pay for all that, you need crops that bring in a lot of money.

46. In many places, the extension services have tractors. Farmers can pay to hire the tractors to work in their fields.



If the soil receives a lot and gives little it becomes poor

Yes or No

Worms eat a lot of earth

Yes or No

The bean is a legume

Yes or No

The brush fire destroys a lot of good plants

Yes or No


Rain, wind, sun__________the rock.

There are microbes in the soil that take the__________in the air to feed on.

Erosion must be prevented from__________the cultivable layer.

When rain falls on a__________soil, it easily carries it away.

To cut grass a__________can be used.

If the animals are well__________they are strong and do the work easily.


What crops make the soil poor where you live?

What animals dig holes in the fields of your villages?

Drought is bad for the soil. Why?

When should a brush fire be made?

Do they make brush fires where you live? Why?

How is the nitrogen in the air given to plants?

Can animal-power farming be done where you live?


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The Soil, the living soil, working the soil

Better Farming Series, no.8. This handbook is designed for intermediate level agricultural education and training. This manual is a translation and adaptation of "Le sol: la vie du sol; le travail du sol," published by the Agri-ServiceAfrique of the lnstitut africain pour le developpement economique et social (INADES), and forms part of a series of booklets. Grateful acknowledgement is made to the publishers for making this text available for English-language agricultural education and training. This illustrated manual addresses how soil is formed and how plants and living organisms change the soil, how soil can be destroyed and the impact of fire on soil. It has a unit on working the soil that describes why the soil should be worked and the tools and methods for working it.

  • Author: FAO
  • Published: 2017-01-16 12:20:11
  • Words: 4695
The Soil, the living soil, working the soil The Soil, the living soil, working the soil