8 Efficiency Boosting Grow Tactics to Optimize Control
Optimizing consistency, boosting efficiency, and supporting plant quality have never been more important as growers work to reduce risk and improve profitability in a volatile market.
“Control” is an elusive objective, particularly when it comes to cultivation. From supply chain disruptions to volatile market prices to invasive pathogens, a variety of factors threaten growers’ harvests. And while controlling quality, consistency, and plant performance is a challenge across the horticultural landscape, managing these attributes can become even more complex when seeking to scale up and commercialize operations.
Ron Goldman, Vice President Innovation and Commercial Solutions at Hydrobuilder Holdings, has worked in the commercial agriculture space for more than 30 years and notes that improving control to boost outcome — even in challenging market conditions — largely comes down to efficiency. “The growers who figure out how to be the best in terms of efficiency are the ones who will be in business for a long time,” Goldman says.
Applying an efficient production strategy to all aspects of cultivation including plant genetics, housing, lighting, and irrigation can help improve growers’ control. But one area of opportunity to boost control is literally ground zero for improving production efficiency — the choice of growing media. By carefully evaluating grow media options, growers can make a choice that supports a greater level of control, harvest after harvest.
In today’s volatile and highly competitive marketplace, success depends upon several variables including yield, quality, and market dynamics according to Daniel Craveiro, Director of R&D at Summit Concentrates. The company provides technologies that prioritize precision and efficiency across multiple states supporting brands including Summit Concentrates, Summit Select, Mayflower Farms, and Sirona Cultivated. “A decade ago, cultivators’ margins were bigger, but today every input has to be fundamentally available, consistent, predictable, and precisely managed,” Craveiro says.
With an eye on boosting consistent efficiencies harvest after harvest, the following are nine efficiency boosts to inform on best selection of a growing media.
1. Automate Watering and Fertigation
Water is life, but this precious resource must be properly supplied to the growing media for optimal utilization by the plant. “Mineral wool was never meant to be hand-watered,” says Goldman. “Having a precision irrigation system supplying the proper amount of water and nutrients is going to ultimately increase your yield, improve your consistency and help manage your input cost.” Automating fertigation reduces variability and contributes to consistency throughout the crop, while reducing labor and its accompanying costs.
2. Reduce the Amount of Grow Media
More is not better when it comes to growing media. A common and costly mistake is using too much grow media. Growing plants in a three- to five-gallon pot of coco, peat, soil, etc will waste a lot of the grower’s media investment. While some growers might argue that extra media provides more of a buffer, once fertigation is automated, less buffer is needed. In most instances, one gallon of media is plenty. For example, a six-inch block of mineral wool provides a little less than one gallon of media while offering sufficient space for roots and an entire plant cycle. If a grower wants to add a little buffer, a four-inch block placed atop a slab provides additional root space and provides a little more forgiving design setup.
3. Choose a Tested and Validated Grow Media
Choosing a grow media that has been tested in the lab and in the growing house can help inform a wise choice. For example, Goldman recently tested a mineral wool growing media to evaluate its results not just in pristine lab-controlled conditions, but also when pushed in challenging conditions representative of real-world grow houses. “As we tested a new mineral wool growing media in a long-running facility, we saw the highest yield to date,” he says.
4. Consider the Location of Customer Service and Educational Support
According to Goldman, much of the inconsistency affecting growers’ harvests can be traced to a lack of standards and education in the industry. “The standards that inform efficiency and consistency in commercial agriculture just aren’t in our industry yet and a lack of resources can affect every aspect of cultivation,” he says. He adds that all too frequently, new growers turn to the social media community for growing advice. A better approach is to choose a supplier with a customer service support team that understands the product and its proper usage in growing conditions. Education should start with prepping the material as every product will benefit from proper preparation. For growers in America, it’s also important to select a grow media supplier with an accessible customer support team that is available during business hours. Choosing a product produced and sourced domestically can provide additional peace of mind, especially during a time of supply chain disruptions.
Scaling up operations is another example of where education comes into play when selecting growing media. For example, a home grower can’t simply extrapolate a model when scaling up to a commercial level. Partnering with a supplier who understands both the business management and economics as well as the science can help growers navigate the leap from homegrown to commercial scale.
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5. Factor in Labor Considerations
Don’t overlook the staff time required to fill pots and mix loose media. Even with automated filling systems, labor requirements tend to be higher with heavier growing media. Manual functions such as cutting holes into the sealed slab when transitioning plants to a flower room can require additional time and tools. Some new options in growing media allow growers to simply soak the growing media, without any additional effort required. Not only does this reduce labor hours, but it can reduce the opportunity for errors.
Craveiro notes the material composition of some media contributes to its handling profile and can reduce stress on workers. For example, a lightweight option like mineral wool can place less of a lift burden on employees. When the growing media is used, excess water can simply be squeezed out, again lightening the weight load. And choosing a material that comes packaged in blocks and slabs can eliminate the need to bend over to pour media into pots or monitor filling from an automated dispenser. The efficiency with which a growing media can be stored in the warehouse also should be considered.
6. Guard Against Opportunistic Threats
Algae, pests, and opportunistic pathogens in the soil all compete with plants for nutrients and water. These contaminants can also create conditions for harmful pathogens to proliferate. Choosing a grow media that is consistent, inert, and sterile can dramatically reduce the risk of pathogens being introduced into a grow. Craveiro says that selecting a sterile, inert media can support safety and security. “We take a lot of confidence in selecting inert media because we can count on it not being a source of impurities,” he says. “From a biological perspective, soils can harbor harmful microorganisms. As we can never gain control over the microbiological life in soil, that can lead to inconsistencies and inefficiencies.”
Craveiro also notes soil is commonly sourced from different locations, introducing another dimension of variability to a grow. The manufacturing processes used to produce inert, sterile growing media provides a higher tolerance for control compared to the processes involved in blending a media comprised of organic materials.
7. Don’t Discount Ancillary Components
Even a growing media’s packaging can support or adversely influence growers’ results. Something as subtle as replacing a growing media’s translucent wrapping with an opaque liner can help protect plant quality. “I’ve never met a grower who was happy to have their plants’ roots exposed to light,” says Craveiro.
8. Curb or Eliminate Unnecessary Additives
Stories of “silver bullet” additives are prolific on social media. But without data supporting an additive’s mode of action compared to the input cost, the cost/benefit analysis is impossible to calculate. Stripping a nutrition mix down to a simple salt that covers the basics can eliminate unnecessary input expenses. When comparing the cost of nutrients, growers should consider the electrical conductivity (EC) to ensure they are comparing apples to apples.
Finally, there is no substitute for results. Monitor performance and if an additive introduced into a growing media doesn’t give improved results, it should be removed from the growing strategy. Adding an additive to a small portion of a grow is designed to make it easy and cost-effective to compare results and evaluate a nutrient’s potential value. Additives should be introduced one at a time to determine if they benefit a grow.
In the end, winning the consistency and quality game is a matter of controlling what you can. Efficient cultivation comes down to managing myriad decisions. The choice of growing media can contribute to consistent, predictable yields harvest after harvest — even during volatile market conditions.
Written by Tom Blaine