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Nov 8, 2023

Crop Steering Cannabis

Recently, the concept of crop steering has become a popular topic among cannabis cultivators. While some growers are familiar with crop steering, many are just now starting to adopt the techniques. Unfortunately, there’s little information published on crop steering for cannabis cultivation. 

In this post, we’ll introduce you to the concept of cannabis crop steering. For a deeper dive, download our Growers Guide to Crop Steering, which covers parameters and strategies as developed by leading industry experts.

What is Crop Steering?

Cannabis plants have hormonal systems that regulate their growth in response to external stresses. The concept of crop steering is essentially the exploitation of these hormonal responses by manipulating a controlled environment to achieve a desired outcome – like bigger yields. 

When a plant puts most of its energy into producing leaves and not much into flower formation, it is considered to be in vegetative growth. When a plant is focused on the development of flowers, it is considered to be in generative growth

Growers must maintain proper plant balance, a defining concept in crop steering. The plant focuses on leaf and stem growth or flower production at any point in the life cycle. If the plant spends too much time in either, the plant balance will be skewed. And if the plant isn’t in balance, then it’s likely that production and quality will ultimately suffer.

The goal of commercial cannabis production is to maximize yields by optimizing plant growth in each stage. With crop steering, plants can produce only enough foliage and stems in vegetative growth to support vigorous flower production.

The Importance of Precision Crop Steering

Precision in crop steering transcends basic plant care; it’s about calibrating environmental factors to achieve the pinnacle of plant potential. This precision impacts not only the quantity but the quality of the yield, influencing factors like cannabinoid profiles and terpene expressions.

Cannabis is known for its sensitivity to environmental shifts, so the margin between optimal growth and stress is slim. Precision crop steering, therefore, becomes an art form as much as a science, requiring a deep understanding of plant physiology and environmental interactions.

Fine-Tuning for Optimal Yields

Going beyond the basics, precision crop steering involves an almost surgical approach to plant care. Each variable is adjusted based on the plant’s current state, anticipated growth patterns, and the final product’s desired attributes.

For instance, the precise timing of nutrient delivery and the light spectrum can be fine-tuned to enhance the secondary metabolites responsible for cannabis’s therapeutic and aromatic qualities, thus tailoring the final product to specific consumer preferences or medical efficacy.

The Delicate Dance of Environmental Accuracy

Precision crop steering is like a delicate dance where each step is planned and executed intentionally. For example, growers might introduce a slight, controlled stressor, such as a temporary increase in temperature, to enhance trichome production and thus increase the plant’s resinous output.

However, the stress must be carefully monitored and kept within a threshold to prevent adverse effects. This requires a deep understanding of the stress physiology of cannabis and a responsive approach to environmental management.

How does crop steering work?

Crop steering operates on the principle of finely tuned environmental control to guide a plant’s energy allocation. By adjusting variables like light intensity, humidity, watering schedules, and nutrient concentrations, cultivators can nudge cannabis plants between vegetative and generative growth phases.

This intricate dance is orchestrated by manipulating the plant’s natural hormonal responses, fostering conditions that promote leaf and stem development or produce flowers. The precision of these adjustments is key, as the plants’ growth direction is highly sensitive to their surroundings.

The Science Behind Crop Steering

The science of crop steering is an intricate play of horticultural acumen and plant biology. It’s rooted in understanding how plants perceive their environment and subsequently allocate resources.

For instance, increased humidity and nitrogen availability might push a plant into vegetative vigor, while drier, potassium-rich conditions might encourage flowering. Growers exploit this by manipulating signals — such as light wavelengths and nutrient ratios — to coax the plants into the desired growth pattern, ensuring that the energy is directed where it’s most beneficial for the crop’s stage and health.

The Lever of Plant Development

In environmental control, every parameter is a lever that can be pulled to direct plant growth. It’s about creating a symphony of conditions that resonate with the plant’s growth phases. Sophisticated climate control systems can automate these conditions, adjusting them in real-time based on data and statistics from sensors that monitor plant responses.

This could involve increasing light intensity to increase photosynthesis during vegetative growth or tweaking CO2 levels to spur flowering to achieve a harmonious balance that promotes health and productivity.

Check out our site visit to Pacific Growth to hear their crop steering journey:

Vegetative Growth

Vegetative growth is when stems and foliage are the predominant focus of the plant’s energy use and resulting growth. Generally speaking, mild growing conditions are best to stimulate vigorous leaf growth. Conditions that favor vegetative growth include lower electrical conductivity (EC), higher water content (WC), lower vapor pressure deficit (VPD), lower light intensity, and an overall stress-free environment. 

Although cannabis vegetative growth is most notably associated with the phase between clone and flowering, vegetative cues can be used to nudge plants back into vegetative growth at any point in their lifecycle. 

For instance, if you have compact, slow-growing flowering plants, you can use climate and irrigation cues to inspire vegetative growth and stretch the plants out.

Generative Growth

In generative growth, the plant’s energy is directed toward flower production. The plant slows down the growth of new foliage and reduces its stretching. 

In contrast to the mild conditions that inspire vegetative growth, harsher summer-like conditions are the foundation of generative cues. Higher light intensity, lower substrate water content, higher EC, and higher VPD are all examples of ways to motivate generative growth in your crop.

Generative growth cues can be leveraged throughout the plant’s life cycle, not just in the flowering period. For instance, if you have plants in your veg room that are demonstrating signs of excessive vegetative growth, you can modify your climate and substrate to steer your plants to grow more generatively. 

Vegetative vs Generative Growth

It’s important to understand the difference between generative and vegetative growth because cannabis plants are either in one or the other at any given time.

When a plant puts most of its energy into producing leaves and not much into flower formation, it is considered to be in vegetative growth. When a plant is focused on the development of flowers, it is considered to be in generative growth.

To maintain proper plant balance, the plant focuses on leaf and stem growth or flower production at any point in the life cycle. If your plants are not balanced, they will ultimately suffer from lower yields due to less-than-optimal vegetative conditions. Crop steering allows the cultivator to nudge the plants between the two stages accurately to optimize their hormonal response and plant balance.

Matric Potential vs Osmotic Potential

Understanding the tug-of-war between matric potential and osmotic potential is crucial for effective crop steering. Matric potential refers to the force with which water is held in the soil or substrate. In contrast, osmotic potential pertains to the water’s movement driven by solute concentrations, such as nutrients in the solution.

In crop steering, the balance between these forces determines water and nutrient uptake. High osmotic potential can draw water out of the plant, favoring generative growth, whereas a favorable matric potential can encourage water intake for lush vegetative growth.

Water Retention and Nutrient Uptake

A more nuanced understanding of matric and osmotic potential reveals their impact on plant turgor pressure and overall vigor. Matric potential focuses on the substrate’s ability to hold onto water molecules against gravity, which is crucial in maintaining adequate moisture for roots.

Conversely, osmotic potential deals with the concentration gradient across the root membrane, driving nutrient and water absorption. Manipulating these potentials involves adjusting irrigation strategies and substrate composition, ensuring that plants receive hydration and nutrition without the stress of waterlogging or nutrient burn.

Matric and Osmotic Dynamics

Delving into the interplay of matric and osmotic potential, one finds a dynamic that dictates the plant’s day-to-day water and nutrient dynamics. Altering the substrate’s matric potential by changing its composition or moisture level can encourage roots to expand and seek water, enhancing vegetative growth.

On the other hand, manipulating osmotic potential by varying nutrient solution concentrations can influence a plant’s water uptake and is used to trigger stress responses that promote flowering. Be careful when increasing concentration to prevent unwanted nutrient burn.

When and How to Use Crop Steering

Crop steering can be done at any growth stage to accomplish a grower’s specific goals. In the last few years, crop steering techniques have really taken off at indoor cultivation facilities. Growers have been exploring a mix of vegetative and generative steering throughout the cannabis flowering cycle to maintain plant balance.

Growers use generative steering to initiate the flowering cycle with the change in photoperiod. Once flowers have set, and after around the first defoliation, they will switch to a vegetative strategy to keep the plant healthy and increase the bulking of flowers. 

Some growers go back and forth between vegetative and generative techniques to maintain plant balance. Other growers maintain vegetative steering until the crop gets closer to harvest, then switch to a heavy generative steer to finish the crop.

You should experiment with these strategies on each cultivar as they will react differently to the timely changes in environmental conditions. The way to track the steering cues and their effects on your plants is through crop registration.  

What’s happening in the Root Zone?

Cannabis roots play a vital role in the quality of the final product. Healthy roots sustain healthy growth, as the roots deliver water and nutrients to the plant. Root zone management is the consideration of irrigation strategy and the impact the strategy will have on specific properties in the root zone, such as water content (WC), temperature, and electrical conductivity (EC) in your substrate. Understanding each of these root zone properties and how changes will affect your plants is important. 

Selecting a substrate is an important decision as it is a conduit for making water and nutrients available to the plant. Substrates like soil, coco mix, or rockwool cubes all perform differently as they have widely differing physical properties, such as the ability to absorb and retain water. To know how much to irrigate and feed your cannabis plants, it’s helpful to have root zone technology deployed that provides visibility into the conditions in your substrate.

Root zone technology, such as sensors, monitors the substrate temperature, EC, and WC. Monitoring your root zone will give you crucial information, which when combined with diligent crop registration practices, can help you answer key questions like “What dryback am I achieving overnight?”, “How high can I run EC before inducing crop damage?”, “What is the temperature of my root zone compared to the ambient temperature?”

Crop Registration

Crop registration is the collection of detailed measurements for your crop and is arguably the most important aspect of crop steering. Through diligent data collection, growers can track how their steering actions affect the plants and resulting yields. Common plant attributes that should be observed during crop registration are:

  • Plant height
  • Root development
  • Stem diameter
  • Internodal spacing
  • Leaf color / Stem color
  • Flower circumference
  • Trichome attributes
  • Plant vigor

By collecting data on these key performance indicators (KPIs) regularly, you can begin to make correlations about cause and effect. And ultimately, how potent, productive, or even how vulnerable a cultivar may be to disease and pests. 

The Trym Approach

The Trym approach to crop steering is a fusion of technology with traditional horticultural expertise. Trym offers growers a granular view of their crop’s performance by leveraging data analytics and environmental monitoring tools. This approach isn’t just about adjusting the environment reactively; it’s about anticipating the plant’s needs and preemptively setting the stage for optimal growth.

By harmonizing technology with the plant’s natural rhythms, Trym seeks to streamline the steering process, ensuring each plant achieves its full genetic expression with every harvest.

Data-Driven Cultivation

Our mission at Trym is to empower cultivators with data analysis, using insights gleaned from every aspect of the growing process. For example, by analyzing data trends over time, growers can predict plant behaviors and adjust inputs preemptively. This might involve using software to track growth rates, feeding response, and nutrient uptake, then using algorithms to predict when a plant will enter a new growth phase and adjust environmental factors accordingly.

Proactive Crop Steering

The art of anticipation in the Trym approach means creating a cultivation plan that’s both reactive and predictive. By understanding the historical responses of their plants to certain conditions, growers can forecast needs and preemptively adjust the growing environment.

This might mean increasing certain nutrients just before the plant shows signs of deficiency or adjusting light schedules in anticipation of a growth phase transition. It’s a holistic approach that considers past, present, and future to keep the plants consistently in their optimal growth window.

Crop Steering Technology

Advancements and innovation in cultivation technology support the adoption of crop steering in the cannabis industry. Beyond data collection and analysis, growers can control and automate HVAC, lights, fans, irrigation, and fertigation systems. Through a combination of sensors, control systems, cultivation software, irrigation strategy, and crop registration, growers can now steer their crops to greater outcomes than ever before. 

To dig deeper into the concept of crop steering and get guidance on implementing these techniques into your operation, download our Growers Guide to Crop Steering. Developed with leading industry experts, it will provide you with the knowledge and key parameters necessary to begin experimenting with crop steering!

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