How to Maximize Harvests with Diversification and Automation

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As anyone in the agricultural community will attest, weather plays a huge role in the success or failure of a crop. However, Mother Nature is not the only factor, and there are many steps growers can take to plan and be ready for whatever conditions the season brings. Luke Burmeister, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico territory sales manager for Keirton, a provider of professional cannabis and hemp trimmers, explains why diversifying end products is important and how good planning, preparation and automation can help growers maximize their harvest.

Q: What are the most common methods for harvesting hemp and outdoor cannabis?

A: There are two sides of hemp. You can do milling for hemp fiber and biomass, or you can [trim] it, implementing bucking or trimming machines to [extract] CBD from hemp flower. Hemp flower has been in such high demand right now; for instance, in Colorado, we’re seeing price per pound going right around that $300 to $400 per pound range for top shelf, premium CBD hemp flower. For the milling process, you’re taking the whole plant, molting it down to biomass for plastics, fiber pellets or hemp concrete, insulation for homes, the car industry, furniture, toilet paper, Tupperware; there’s a lot you can do with biomass. In Colorado right now, biomass is [priced] right around that $25 to $35 a pound range. So, there’s some variation on getting the most you can out of your crop if it’s an outdoor facility with a very high plant count with hemp rather than cannabis.

Q: How can cultivators determine what portion of their hemp crop should be allocated to CBD extraction versus biomass?

A: There are various hemp products, so it’s crucial to understand which end product provides the most value, what your end goal is and how you are going to achieve it before the harvest begins. Be realistic, have some diversity in your crop, and have a pretty set schedule and attainable goals before harvest begins. If you’re dealing with a crop that’s say 10 acres, and it’s got maybe 5,000 to 8,000 plants per acre, you want to have realistic goals. If you’re growing the hemp flower, only a portion of that I would designate to the actual CBD from the flower, the medicinal product you can make from that, which can include oils/edibles, skin care products, pet products. And then take a small portion of that and use that specifically for medicinal [products], and the rest for biomass milling.

Q: What are the benefits of trimming a harvest instead of straight milling, other than the fact that you’d be able to diversify your end product and extract CBD from the hemp flower?

A: If you are a farmer, you want to utilize your crop to full advantage. You’re racing against the clock with Mother Nature; in Colorado for instance this year, we had an early snow that hit [in early October], so you’re racing against the clock to take down your harvest at the end of that flower cycle and schedule. [You have to consider] the ROI on how much man labor you’re going to have on your farmthat makes a big impact too. If you’re an outdoor cultivator, it’s typically mid-September to the end of October that you’re pulling down your plants and harvesting, so you’re not only racing the clock, you’re determining how many people you’re going to have to have to bring all this down. If the weather decides to turn, it’s go time.

Q: What automation technology is available to cultivators to manage this time crunch, and what are the benefits?

A: Implementing automation at the end of the day to save costs is huge. With hemp, you have such a higher plant count than you would for cannabis. With hemp, [growers] are growing on tons of acres. [With automation], you’re cutting down your man-labor cost but also production time, especially when you use automated machines for bucking the plant, which is just taking stocks, putting them into our bucker, and debucking the flower strictly off the stock. One person can [buck] 15 pounds an hour, (3 pounds of dry weight, 15 pounds of wet weight), so about 120 pounds of debucking one person can do per day. Using a bucker, [the machine can process] approximately 150 pounds per hour and 1,200 pounds a day in an eight-hour shift, with one person working that machine. That’s the advantage. With hand trimmers, whether it’s cannabis or hemp, even some of your best hand trimmers out of [Northern California] can do a pound a day. Depending on what machine you use, our best machine, the T-Zero, is capable of doing 600 pounds of wet product per hour or 200 pounds of dry product per hour with three people operating the machine.   

The machine is doing its job, it’s dialed in, and [you] don’t have to worry about theft. With hand trimming–from hour one [to] hour eight, the product will change in consistency. With automation, your yield is significantly higher and consistency is better.

Q: What are the most common questions and concerns you get from growers who inquire about automation?

A: One, is it going to be gentle on the flower? That’s a big one. And then two is definitely the ROI. They want to know the differences and what they can get out of implementing [automation] into their harvest. They want to know output per hour and how much processing can be done in an eight-hour shift. What we do as a company, we started manufacturing/designing machinery for trimming, about 12 years ago, and we’ve come a long way as well. We make machines that can do 6 pounds an hour up to 600 pounds per hour of processing material.

Q: What are some of the common problems that cultivators have when first working with automated machines?

A: I think a lot of the time, it comes down to dialing the machine to meet the needs of the strain–your feed rate and how fast you’re loading in product into the trimmer and how long it’s staying in there. It usually comes down to those three variables–how fast you’re putting product in, the incline/pitch of machine to leave product in there longer or get it out faster, and with dry harvest, your moisture content … always plays a huge factor. For hemp [growers] that pull down thousands and thousands of plants, you have to be realistic. It would be great to do all that work in a wet harvest, but when you’re pulling down that large a plant count, you have to dry hang that, and your prep work prior to doing the harvest is what we try to hit on and educate the most. Prior to going to the trimmer, you want to make sure your moisture content in the flower ranges from 10% to 14%. For me, whether it’s cannabis or hemp, I always tell everyone, you want to look for almost a marshmallow squish between your thumb and your index finger to the core of the flower, and then on the outside of the plant, when it’s cured, you want … a sugar leaf that curls into the flower.

Q: We’ve been talking a lot about recommendations for processing hemp and automating production. Would your recommendations differ for cannabis growers?

A: From what I’ve seen in the field, when you grow cannabis outdoors, typically you have a lower plant count than with hemp. They aren’t these 12- to 13-foot monsters, they want consistency between entire crop. You’re going to have less bud density on a hemp plant than you would on a cannabis plant. Prep work prior to doing a dry harvest on cannabis and hemp, I would say it’s about the same. You do want to look for good moisture content on a dry harvest, for your hemp as well. If it gets too dry, you’re losing a lot of the profile of that flower, and that will affect how well it trims and how well it cures and cuts as well. What a lot of farmers have found out over the years with cannabis and even with hemp … is you’re working around your environment. For instance, Colorado is a very dry climate, so your curing process is going to be a lot quicker than somewhere like Arkansas and Oklahoma, where the humidity is much higher. If you’re harvesting indoors and an indoor cultivator, if you can control your room temperature’s environment, set it to a cooler temperature, that will ultimately affect a few things. It’s going to affect how well the product is trimming. If it’s a wet harvest, a colder environment is what we recommend. You’re going to have better trichome profile to the flower, just because in a colder environment. It’s not going to be getting too hot and sticking to the tumbler. It’s in and out a lot sooner, and you’re also getting a more consistent cut, too.

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