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    Industrial Hemp :

    Fiber, Grain, & High CBD

    Understanding Soil Health: Pre-Planting to Post Harvest


    Through the many farmers and entrepreneurs I have met looking to get into growing hemp, I am finding that a large number have never farmed before and most have not farm hemp, which has some aspects that are uncommon to conventional farming.  As I seem to go over several basic aspects with the farmers I meet, I decided to put a number of observations into a blog so it can be a reference to come back to when needed.  In some areas of the country farmers are just trying to find out if growing hemp might be profitable for them but they just need a little more information.


    So here goes…


    Understanding Some Basics 

    Many states require hemp to be grown organically and pesticide free.   For those states that are not required to be organic they still must not using pesticides. Many farmers that have grown all their lives have never grown pesticide free, which becomes a cause for concern with regards to insect and weed pressure.  We will walk through some basics for understanding the importance of soil health and reinforcing the adage, garbage in… garbage out.


    Fiber, grain and the myth that you can’t grow quality CBD hemp with furrows rather than pivots or dip tape. 

    Due to the value of the fiber/grain compared to high CBD hemp and the lack of proper processing facilities, it makes sense to farm with furrows rather than creating additional costs for larger yields, with one caveat.  Unless it is specific to CBD hemp and under certain circumstances.  The idea that anyone must use pivots or drip tape and plastic mulch is not true. The largest yields I saw in Colorado in 2018 for high CBD hemp was on furrowed land that was properly amended.

    Please do not get me wrong there are many benefits which we will talk about later related to controlled fertilizer/amendment uptake through pivots or drip tape but understanding and properly amending your soil is necessary in all cases.


    Overview: Understanding the importance of Soil Health growing organically and/or pesticide free

    *Soil and Water Tests to properly amend fields

    *Fertilizer needs

    *Pre-plant Treatments

    *Microbial reintroduction after tilling

    *Proper chelation

    *Post-harvest Treatments

    *Potential manure issues and mineralization

    *Weed and Insect pressure

    *Fungal issues


    Soil and Water Tests to properly amend or fields

    We can’t give away all our secrets but there are some basics that all hemp growers should understand about properly amending your soil and that starts with water and soil tests. I will say it is recommended for you to not only get the test but have someone who understand stands it explain it to you not just the vendor that is trying to sell you nutrients. If your water can affect even a 10% yield difference isn’t it worth your time to have someone on you team understand it.  It’s money that you are losing.


    Water test – Depending on how you get your water and especially if it is from a well or city water that has been treated you should test at least once for bacteria cultures including E.coli. Depending if your operation is only outdoor or if it is indoor as well for even just propagation you will want to look at what is the mineral, nitrate, total dissolved solid contents as well as the pH and maybe more depending on what your report shows.


    I have seen very low pH numbers that did not show cause on water reports, but it made us look into suspected causes which were related to what neighboring operations were doing.  We found they were contaminating the aquifer that my client pulled his water from. You need to understand acceptable ranges and when to look deeper into causes.  What if your pH is close to 9-10, which will lock up certain nutrients and if it is not address it will greatly affect yield?  If you have high salts, what are you doing to amend the soil to address salt stress on the plant roots?  How are you lowering your pH and does it make sense for your field, crop, situation?


    Soil report – The most experienced farmers do numerous tests per acreage plot as no one area is always the same as the next. Most hemp farmers don’t understand this and might do one test for 50 acres.   I will say that 1 report is better than nothing, but I would recommend at least a few data points and take at least an average to properly amend your soil.  If you see large variances it may be worth doing secondary reports.  It all depends what the value of your crop is and if you know your land.  If a farmer has been working it for years, they have a better idea than buying land to get into making money and not understanding the issues until you see it in your first crop.


    Soil reports are more than what Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium are in the field and most reports do not test for Nitrogen unless asked for. How did the company who tested the soil perform the tests and what methods did they use? A report may tell you a lot or nothing depending on how the analysis was done as well. What’s the calcium saturation content?  A test can be done for calcium and it not show what true amount of calcium is locked up in the field. Do you have any high toxicity levels of any micro nutrients?


    OM- Organic Matter.  On your report you should have an OM number which relates to Organic Matter. The quick answer is the higher the OM number the higher quality products you will produce. There are minimum ranges that your field should have but most lands are stripped of their organic matter and there are very few ways to reintroduce it.  Fruits and vegetables have been losing nutrient value for years, and what you do think is a cause of that is?


    Furrow vs Pivot (sprinklers) and drip tape. 

    When reviewing the soil report to amend your soil you should be amending the same way for all types of application of water.  The main difference is if the ground has such a poor nutrient make up that adding nutrients and micro nutrients through drip tape or pivot make more sense.  I have seen fields with absolutely no NPK nutrients in the field and nutrients are not readily available they must be mineralized for proper uptake by the plant.  You can’t drop manure on a field and expect mineralization in a week or a month through natural processes.  For the best quality and yield you must prep your soil and give it enough time to start its natural processes, but too often new farmers are in a rush and only throw on a little NPK.  I have to laugh when I ask what the farmer thinks he will make off each acre of high CBD hemp, which is always in the 100’s of thousands of dollars but doesn’t want to spend $100-200 to properly amend the soil. Soil needs to be taken care of and replenished to have a chance at a decent crop.


    Fertilizer needs

    Furrows- apply all nutrients and soil amendments prior to planting. Additional microbial or chelation or Nitrogen can still be introduced but only when the plants are small in early vegetative growth through fertigation spraying.  Those applications usually stop at the point the plants are too big for a tractor to get through without knocking off branches.


    Pivot and Drip tape

    Each fertilizer company will have a difference opinion, but we believe that you should amend your soil to the best of your ability and only supplement with pivots or drip tape.  If you have the ability to get everything into your ground then you should only be adding microbes, chelators, N boosters in vegetative growth if necessary, and P & K boosters in the flowering phase.  Due to not wanting to add microbes through a foliar in bloom we only recommend microbes through drip tape during the flowering phase.


    The one additional ingredient would be liquid organic matter which has a number of benefits from helping to increasing quality and yield, chelation if using a humate based product and also is a wonderful microbial food source.  The BioMass OM contains a long chain carbon food source that helps the microbes do their jobs which can be added a different strength depending on the phase as well.

    Fertilizer amounts

    There are several theories to how to amend your soil.  Some believe a minimalist approach, and some believe putting on excess.  The answer for us is somewhere in between.  When too much is put on especially cow manure or another form of nitrogen, most either leaches out of the soil and into our waterways or volatizes off into the air.  Many need to apply Nitrogen in the fall which we will talk about in post-harvest treatments, but if you test in the fall and then in April you might see as much as 45-55% of the nitrogen in the fall is gone.  So how much nitrogen does your plant really need? For those that put it on in the fall they could be using much less but add stabilizers that prevent the nitrogen from excessive leaching or volatilization.  Reducing nitrogen can save money and the surrounding environment.

    We also do not believe in a minimalist approach.  Plants have a maximum potential of uptake of nutrients, but rarely do they hit that potential do to several environmental and nutrient factors. You can organically introduce chelators that will help chelate the nutrients in the soil to be uptaken at closer to their maximum potential.  Plants will not take in more than they can handle when receiving nutrients through their root zone.

    As a note when foliar spraying which includes all sprinkler/pivot systems a plant can receive an excessive amount of nutrients.  Other nutrients are salt based, and the salt can harm the plant and our nutrients are virtually salt free and when applying by a foliar option the nutrients can uptake into the plant leaves at up to 95%, more is not always better.

    Note- If using overhead watering to apply nutrients do not apply nitrogen to close to flowering as it is may stunt bud production.  You can have perfectly healthy plants, but the buds are small which create lower yield for grain and oil production.


    Pre-plant Treatments   

    Brief Note- technically the prior year’s post-harvest treatment affects the pre-plant treatment for the following year, and few properly address the post-harvest treatment.  Pre-plant treatments include necessary nutrient amendments as well as soil amendments which can include addressing organic matter, water conservation, salt stress, microbial inoculants, chelation properties, nutrient stabilization and efficiencies


    Microbial Reintroduction after Tilling

    I mentioned that the best plants I saw in Co in 2018 were on a plot that was furrowed. The farmer has farmed for over 40 years and knows his land, water and properly amends his ground but he had need for only two things.  The first was to introduce nitrogen fixing and phosphate solubilizing microbes after tilling and his one change would be using a different form of nitrogen which we will talk about in the post-harvest section.

    In a perfect world we recommend minimum tillage, but many must till or even rip their ground until they can properly amend it.  When you till, you upset the ecosystem that creates nutrients in the ground to become available.  We can go into the why, but the result is every time you till you are in effect destroying environments which take time to regenerate.  Microbes are killed off as well as nematodes and several other organisms that are necessary for efficient nutrient processing.  Those systems most often eventually come back into the topsoil, but how long of the delay can affect the initial growth of your root system and plant growth?  By introducing a synergistic community of microorganisms, it accelerates the initial stages of growth which affect final yield and quality.  Microbes are the workers that create your plant so every time you knock out a community it takes time to regenerate for the maximum efficiency.  If I can get extra yield by the proper reintroduction of microbes why wouldn’t I do it? The faster the root zone forms the faster top side growth starts to occur.


    Proper Chelation

    A few words about chelation. There are forms that people are commonly aware of and then there are some less well known.  There are humates like humic, fulvic as well as additional acids that are beneficial for speeding up the chelation of nutrients into the proper forms to be uptaken into the plant.  Be aware that like anything there are different levels of quality with regards to humates.  Many indoor growers use humates to help with growth but don’t use them in the field. Field quality chelators come in many forms, concentrations and qualities and it is something you should research over time.  If your ground properly amended with nutrients, the proper chelation can boost quality and yield.  Some products can make the chelation affect the uptake of organic nutrients at similar rates as synthetic nutrients making them immediately available.


    Post-harvest Treatments 

    Post-harvest treatments from the prior year are essential for proper soil health but many inexperienced growers new to farming do not have a proper understanding.  This includes applying a nitrogen and organic matter source as well as breaking down plant residue including roots and stalks that are in the field from the prior season. This relates to all crops but especially when there is hemp plant residue which for fiber is harder than corn stalks to break down. In addition, insects will use decaying plant residue to infest areas of land.  It makes more sense to break down that residue, so it returns to the soil as nutrients.

    As hemp growers cannot use herbicides a major problem is weed pressure as well. I speak to many farmers new and experienced that do not realize by spreading non-composted manure they are repopulating new weed seeds into their soil with every spreading.  At what point do we look to reduce the weed pressure with a combination of techniques?


    Nitrogen and Organic Matter

     Nitrogen needs time to mineralize so depending on the area of the country, especially areas that have a heavy snow load and freezing topsoil temperatures manure is many times spread in the fall for the upcoming year. There are several issues that farmers do not consider when spreading their nitrogen source which include leaching out, volatilizing off prior to the upcoming season, as well as pest, weed and bacteria issues that are most commonly associated with manure.

    In addition, manure helps to replenish organic matter to the soil, but it needs to be broken down to become available. With regards to Organic Matter (OM), OM is one of the lowest numbers you will find on most soil reports and usually less than what is needed. Manure is a source but not the best form of organic matter and is not as concentrated as other sources.  If you do not have at least at “3” on your soil report for OM you should look into supplementing as it has greater value that people understand.

    Back to nitrogen, depending on if it is cow manure, which is most often the cheapest form of nitrogen rather than compost or composted manure, manure comes with its challenges.  What have the cows been fed?  Is it GMO or non-GMO food?  Cows cannot digest up to 80% of GMO feed.  In most cases cows still have a high undigested amount of feed and that feed is baled from acres of corn, alfalfa, or the cows maybe pasture raised, or a combination of both. In all cases there are weeds in everything baled or corn that is made into silage.  In Colorado, what farmers call pig weed was originally used as a food source for cattle and it’s everywhere.  If cows cannot digest up to 80% of what they eat the weed seeds are also passing through into the manure.

    Manure can have a high percentage of weed seed as well as undigested plant material where bacteria and pests can live if it is not properly broken down prior to planting.


    So what can farmers do?

    When applying manure, you should be looking at three applications depending on need.  The first is a post-harvest digester that helps to mineralize the manure to help nutrients become more readily available for plants.  It also helps to break down the undigested plant residue to reduce insect pressure and disease as well as breaking down or at least damaging the weed seed.  The biology should be put on at the same time as the manure is spread but microbes will go dormant when the soil is too cold and start back up with spring.  Digesters will not stop all weed pressure there are seeds in your soil right now that may not germinate for years.  The goal is to start to reduce the weed pressure, as well as break down the plant residue and any existing root stumps that may be left from the prior year.

    The second application would be to stabilize the nitrogen source as it will help to reduce nitrogen from volatilizing off into the air or leeching out into our water sources. These organic stabilizers will allow for less application of nitrogen as well.  As mentioned before, nitrogen applied in the fall can lose unto 45-55% prior to being needed the next season.

    The third application would be the most important as nitrogen can always be applied in a liquid form during the season, but organic matter should be applied at minimum in dry form spread on the fields and best case in combination with liquid during the season.

    When spreading manure, first you should look at the costs between paying for composted manure that has been heated and has sterilized a high percentage of weed seeds versus how much farmers are spending especially on high CBD strains for manual weeding


    Fungal Issues

    The last section is for those humid areas like the Midwest where it is humid and receives a lot of rain.  Areas for example like Wisconsin and Minnesota where Hemp grows similar to tomatoes and are susceptible to the same fungal issues like Septoria Leaf Spots or Tomato Blight. Potatoes can get the same fungal issues and the fungus does not die over the winter, it only gets worse the following years.  There are some things that can be used but if you look up Tomato Blight you will see it says rip off all infected areas and dispose of by sealing the affected plant leaves in bags or burning.  This is possible with a few plants but not 1000s per acre.

    If you are in an area that is susceptible to these fungal issues you first need to make your soil as healthy as possible, so the plants are less susceptible. This includes using a post-harvest digester to kill off all plant residue that can harbor the bacteria as well as using an OMRI listed organic formula that can kill the bacteria or at least reduce the disease pressure on the plants. This may become a maintenance spraying you would need to do prior to planting as well as during the season.  If using any agent that can kill bacteria, you should be reintroducing good bacteria after each application.  Contact us for more information if you are having this problem.

    I have only touched on a few of the items that can come up while growing so please do not hesitate to email us at [email protected] for more information.