When it comes to agriculture, achieving a robust yield is always one of the main goals. For cannabis, it’s even more crucial. The plant has become the sixth most valuable commercial crop in the country, with an annual wholesale value of $5 billion.
With this in mind, growers are always seeking ways to optimize or boost production. There are plenty of tried and true methods, as well as cutting-edge techniques that can help improve crop health and protect profits.
We spoke with cultivators across the country to discover the ten most useful tips to increase yields.
Automation and environmental controls
Cannabis is a fickle plant. In order to thrive, it must be grown in just the right conditions. Leaning into automation technology can benefit cultivators across the board by ensuring the environment is always perfect for the cultivars within.
Kurt Kinneman, a hemp grower and horticultural engineer at AI Grow, says automation is key to both improving plant health and mitigating issues at the same time.
“Automation can help monitor and control the environment and plant media to provide the optimal growing conditions by using sensors to monitor temperature, humidity, CO2, lights, moisture levels in plant media, and media runoff,” Kinneman said. “Integrated software sends alerts if conditions change, helping to prevent problems before they start.”
Use the right containers
The pot you use for your plants can make or break their life cycle.
Expert cultivators opt for air pots or smart pots. Made from breathable materials, these pots promote the aeration of plant roots. This breathing room equates to healthier and happier plants.
There are many ways to gently manipulate cannabis plants and leaves to maximize their potential. These methods are usually broken down into two categories: low-stress training (LST) and high-stress training (HST).
Low-stress training techniques include tying down plant stems to force even and consistent growth. High-stress training is a bit more dramatic, and may see the colas of plants cut off in a practice called topping, or mainlining, which is a combination of topping and tie-down LST.
According to Michael Burns, cultivation manager at Massachusetts-based Nature’s Heritage, most plants could benefit from training but it all depends on genetics.
“Some genetics may require plant manipulation, whether topping, low-stress training, super cropping, fimming, scrogging, or strategic methods of removing branching to achieve a specific shape or uniformity,” said Burns. “There is no right or wrong way to go about any of these practices, and it all comes down to the cultivar, the setting you are growing in, and what you are attempting to achieve.”
Dial in your nutrients
Cannabis plants need plenty of nutrients to promote growth. Some of the most critical include nitrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. However, it’s important to find a healthy balance to avoid nutrient burn, which can cause big problems for your plants.
For example, high amounts of nitrogen and potassium are needed during the vegetative stage. Once the plants reach the flowering stage, however, the nitrogen needs to be scaled back.
If you see burnt leaf tips, it could be a sign of nutrient burn. Remove any heavily damaged leaves and flush the plants with pH-balanced water to prevent further issues—and reconsider your current fertigation ratios.
Use healthy soil
The type of growing medium you use can also play a big part in how the plant develops. As it turns out, not all dirt is created equal.
Ted Blair, the owner of Emerald Triangle-based CannaCountry Farms, believes living soil is the best for his plants.
“It’s a microbe-rich soil,” he said. “The plant and the soil have a symbiotic relationship. Fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and many more organisms within help cannabis thrive. The plant is able to take what it needs when it needs it—this is the magic of living soil.”
Increase light intensity
Lighting is key to boosting cannabis crop yields. Having powerful lights hitting the plant at every angle will ensure they produce the biggest buds possible.
While lights can eat up a good chunk of indoor cultivation budgets, the investment may be more than worth it. The team at Nature’s Heritage recommends LED lights to help promote growth as well as energy efficiency.
“When it comes to increased light intensity, our research has shown positive spikes regarding increased flower production with LEDs,” said Burns. “With a hyper-focus on our LEDs, we have not only seen an increase in yield, but with the overall higher spectral composition of light, we have also seen an enrichment in cannabinoid and terpene content.”
Find the proper pH
Cannabis plants perform best in acidic-leaning soils. The sweet spot for most cultivars is somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0 pH. Too high or too low and the plant roots will struggle to absorb nutrients.
The nutrients used and the contents of the soil determine your pH in cannabis. Levels can be monitored through automated sensors, handheld pH meters, or lab testing.
Crank up the CO2
Cannabis plants require lots of carbon dioxide (CO2). The element is the backbone of photosynthesis, where CO2 is converted to energy. While you do not want to overdo it, adding some additional carbon dioxide to the growing environment may help increase yields.
Boosting CO2 levels in commercial grows can be done through the use of special generators. Compressed CO2 may also be applied via tanks. The element should come from above the plants as the molecules are heavier than oxygen and will sink to the ground. Grow rooms should be properly sealed to increase efficiency and protect workers.
It’s important to note that CO2 is toxic for humans at high levels. This means novice home growers may want to avoid this tip and leave it to the pros.
Track your results
Keeping detailed records of plant life cycles can help cultivators determine if they want to stick with a certain strain or move on to another cultivar. It can also pinpoint problem areas that could produce better results if modified.
Technology providers like AI Grow make crop tracking simple, storing analytics in a database that can be accessed at any time. This information is critical to facility efficiency and should be reviewed regularly.
“We actually have an analytics department—they measure the performance of every strain,” said Jon Spadafora, president of Colorado-based Veritas Fine Cannabis. “They look at how that strain produces every time that it’s planted, and in which facility and in which room. Once a quarter, we sit down and take a look at how the genetics are performing.”
Time the harvest right—and listen to the plants
When plants are ready for harvest, it’s hard not to jump into action. While the harvest window is typically between two and three weeks, pushing it a tad longer will allow the buds to increase in size considerably.
David German, general manager of Commonwealth Alternative Care in Massachusetts, notes that harvest timing boils down to two things: the plant’s life cycle and the facility’s overall operations.
“Harvesting may be the last step, but harvest timing is also the first step,” German said. “It is a continuous cycle, so as harvest kicks off, we look ahead. It is important to plan genetics ahead and stay on schedule to maximize the facility output.
For Lelehnia DuBois, a legacy cultivator and founder of Humboldt Grace, being in tune with the Earth matters most.
“When we listen to nature well, we can understand how to support our outdoor garden throughout the year,” she said. “For example, the old-timers I grew up with used to look for the wildflower lupin to plant their guerilla grows. The presence of Lupin tells you the soil is high in nitrogen, which boosts plant health.
“Understanding these signs from nature guides you on what amendments are needed, and when you look around, you can see that many of those amendments are provided for you by nature as well.”