Irrigation Considerations for Cannabis
When it comes to your cannabis operation, precision irrigation is an important key to unlocking higher yield potential and profitability. When you have a quality, reliable automated irrigation system, not only do you encourage your plants’ best production, but you can also overcome other issues that continually challenge growers as they expand their operations: water use efficiency, labor shortages and fertilizer input costs.
Additionally, as weather patterns bring drought and declining, unreliable natural water resources, sustainability has become a crucial part of a successful operation; and there are solutions to start cannabis growers down the path toward greater success.
AUTOMATED IRRIGATION: KEY TO CONSISTENCY
Controlled environments are critical for the efficient, consistent growth of a product to meet the strict regulatory requirements for commercial sale. Indoor operations also allow for consistent conditions to give every plant its best chance to thrive. Maintaining those conditions without using current technology, however, can be labor intensive and a detriment to an operation’s financial goals. Not only can automated irrigation systems be fitted to your needs, but they can also be designed and implemented to solve other issues.
According to Rob Vandersteen, greenhouse irrigation and automation specialist for AdeptAg, not every operation is the same, so a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work when it comes to irrigation.
“From my 20 years of experience, I’ve seen operations of every size and varying amounts of complexity,” says Vandersteen. “But thanks to the technology advancements in automated irrigation systems, custom irrigation is showing more benefits. They not only are growing a better product, but it’s also helping reduce labor requirements and benefiting overall finances in a number of ways.”
INVESTING IN AN AUTOMATED DRIP IRRIGATION SYSTEM
Irrigation is vital to maintaining the uniformity that customers will expect from a grower’s product. Further, automated irrigation can maximize yield potential and product quality by giving your plants the exact amount of water they need at just the right time and place. This reduces waste, meaning less water will be needed than a human-maintained system, ultimately saving money by increasing water use efficiency.
Drip irrigation, flood floors, boom irrigation and overhead nozzles can all be incorporated to help cannabis cultivators grow their best product. However, whether plants are grown on the ground, on a table or out in the field, the most efficient way to deliver water is through drip irrigation as part of your automated system. An efficient drip system places every drop of water right in the soil for maximum root uptake. When a fertigation system is added to the mix, the perfect amount of fertilizer and water is placed without waste, ready to give your plants the nutrients they need right at the root.
“Not only does drip irrigation as part of your automated system offer uniformity across the crop, it also allows correction to mistakes that may have been made,” Vandersteen says. “If too much fertilizer was placed, simply flushing out the substrate with additional fresh water can help correct nutrient levels for the plant.”
Vandersteen added that growers should consider pressure-compensated drip irrigation as it offers the most uniformity at a very competitive cost per plant. Additionally, drip systems are easy to customize and install.
These automated systems also allow growers to more easily adhere to strict fertilizer regulations for commercial sale. Vandersteen says the unique regulations for the cannabis industry can put a strain on growers, but it’s something that automated irrigation can help with to ensure your products can legally enter the market.
AUTOMATED IRRIGATION BENEFITS MORE THAN JUST PLANTS
Automated irrigation and fertigation systems have benefits beyond accurately delivering a calculated amount of water with just the right amount of fertilizer to every plant in the building. In terms of cost savings and overcoming operational issues, automated irrigation systems can solve a host of problems that many cannabis growers face, including persistent labor shortages.
“When I’m working with cannabis growers to improve or expand their irrigation capabilities, I always emphasize that automated systems, especially drip systems, can solve more than a single problem,” says Vandersteen. “But one of the most important problems these automated systems can fix is labor shortages.”
Automation means less reliance on human labor. Whether that means being able to reallocate labor resources to other parts of the operation or reducing the number of staff required to run efficiently, automated irrigation can greatly reduce overhead. Vandersteen says growers know that higher profit margins are necessary for growth, and by reducing labor costs through automated systems, owners can put more toward reaching their goals.
The value of water can’t be understated. That’s why sustainability has become a top-of-mind topic for everyone inside and outside of the cannabis industry. It’s the reason to consider options of not only conserving what’s pumped from the ground, but thinking about how to capture and use rainfall.
“When it’s not regulated in your state, one of the most sustainable ways to save money on irrigation costs is to capture water that falls from the sky — it’s free water,” Vandersteen says. “Instead of letting it go to waste near your facility, catch it and store it so you can use that water when and where you need it in your facility.”
He advises water silos can be built on site and tied directly into irrigation systems. By installing this collection option, cultivators can incorporate highly beneficial, free rainwater into their irrigation program.
As the effects of climate change become more frequently realized, having on-site water storage for irrigation will become more and more common as public water sources become less reliable due to drought.
“Growers need to be ready for anything, and that means having technology, like automated drip irrigation, already in place before it’s too late,” says Vandersteen. “Then, if and when natural sources can no longer provide the needed water for your operation, capturing and storing rainwater may become necessary for operations to maintain crops, especially during long periods of drought.”
AUTOMATION BEYOND IRRIGATION
Technology for controlled environment agriculture goes beyond irrigation. From automated filling of pots and trays, to filling those pots with young plants, robotic systems can be customized to fit any size operation.
Vandersteen says that growers have an increasing number of automated solutions at their fingertips to increase efficiency and product quality, while reducing issues that may be weighing on an operation’s finances. Those efficiencies can save time and help maximize yield potential. While these are always top requirements for growers as they make the move to automated machines and processes, the No. 1 reason so many greenhouse businesses make the switch is to reduce labor costs.
“Unfortunately, a common reality for greenhouse owners in every green industry segment is a severe shortage of workers. That’s when these automated systems make the most sense,” says Vandersteen. “So many of the automated irrigation systems I’ve helped install over the years have provided a huge relief to growers when it comes to solving labor difficulties.”
TAKING YOUR PRODUCT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Making the decision to invest in an automated irrigation system isn’t an easy one. Every operation is different, and that means needing a custom-built automated irrigation system is almost certain. But when the benefits can be seen almost out of the gate, the choice can easily be justified. Not only will plant quality and consistency improve, but so will yields and hopefully profits. Automation is a true solution in many ways.
“We don’t want growers to feel like irrigation has to be a necessary evil they have to worry about on a daily basis,” says Vandersteen. “Instead, it’s our team’s job to help cannabis growers not only understand the value of an automated irrigation system, but also to see how it’s really unlocking the potential of their product through consistency, reliability and sustainability.”
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