Hemp near harvest: Trials finding answers to production questions

Andy Huston points to an area of his industrial hemp field that was direct seeded in June. This marked the second year hemp has been produced on the sixth-generation family farm near Roseville, Illinois. About 200 people attended a recent field day presented by Huston and University of Illinois Extension.

ROSEVILLE, Ill. — Seed selection, corn earworm and fertilizer are among the issues facing Illinois hemp farmers.

Those topics and others were discussed at recent field day presented by Andy Huston, American Hemp Research CEO, along with the University of Illinois Extension.

A west-central Illinois farmer, Huston has been on the ground-floor of industrial hemp production.

He and his brother, Frank, are sixth-generation corn and soybean farmers and in their second year of growing hemp on their Warren County farm.

The first year was via a research permit with Western Illinois University. Industrial hemp production became legal in Illinois this year and is licensed by the state agriculture department.

Hemp can be grown provided the plants carry no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. If the plants test high or “hot,” they are destroyed.

The Huston farm focuses on producing cannabinoids, or CBD oils, from the hemp. Other varieties of hemp are grown for fiber characteristics.

Not unlike corn and soybean production, field trials are important to determine the best management practices to grow quality hemp with the characteristics needed for the end-users. There are more than 25,000 documented uses in feed, food, fiber and CBD oil produced by industrial hemp.

Here’s what Andy Huston has found thus far in his field trials.

On Seeding

“We do direct seeding and transplants. We direct seeded with a Yetter planter with some modifications. What I like about the direct seeding is when we planted they basically went through seven to eight weeks without any rain and they just thrived. They just kept growing and growing.

“The root system on these is so much better than those that were transplanted. When we put the seeds in the ground and emerge, they just grow and just keep growing every day.

“When we transplanted from the greenhouse to the field there was probably a week to ten day period that the plants just sit there. They don’t grow. They’re root-locked.

“It’s taking time for the roots to go out and you have to put water on those plants when you do transplants in that week to ten day period.

“If you don’t get rain you better be getting them water whether through irrigation or some other way. I know farmers who did transplants this summer and they put water on the plant with their transplanter. They’d drop about eight to 12 ounces of water per plant.

“They got along great for about three or four days but it never rained and all of a sudden they had a bunch of plants that were starting to wilt.

“They scrambled around and basically took hayracks with 500 gallon water tanks on them and had to hand water for about a week to 10 days until those plants got established.

“If we do transplants next year, we’ll probably transplant a week to 10 days earlier than this year because in order to keep them the same size as a direct seeded plant, a transplant is going to need an extra ten days in its lifecycle just to stay even with the direct seeded plants.”

On Seed Selection

“The majority of our field is cherry wine. Cherry wine is not what I would call a racehorse CBD producer. It likes to get from 9% to 12% CBD oil.

“But what I really like about cherry wine is it’s a hearty plant and it’s a good one to start with. If you don’t have much experience in hemp, this is pretty forgiving, it really likes Illinois climate, and it’s very hard to get the THC levels to go hot.

“That’s why I want people to start out with the cherry wine. We’re trying to figure out which strains work well here, find out what their positives and negatives are and relay that information on to you.”

On Plant Populations

“With the cherry wine strain that grows to look like a Christmas tree, plants were placed every five feet within a row and five feet between rows.

“We use 60-inch rows for the cherry wine. So, the population would be between 1,700 and 2,000 plants per acre with this type of a strain. When you get to the smaller strains like the autoflowers that don’t get as big, they’re planting them around 10,000 plants per acre.”

On Agronomics

“You’re going to want well-drained soil and you’re going to want the least amount of weed pressure in that field. Hemp does not like wet fields and mold is probably the biggest threat to the plant.

“One of the things that we learned is if you’re going to lay down plastic with an irrigation drip line and do transplants, you’re probably going to want a tractor that has auto-steer.

“Weed management is limited to using tillage since no pesticides can be used to reduce weed pressure.

“We did a small research plot last year. As far as fertility, what we put on this field was pretty much the same fertilizer ratio that we put on wheat. It has about 100 pounds of nitrogen on it and the phosphorus and potassium would be the same as if you we’re putting in a wheat here.

“We had a few guys we planted for this spring into prevent plant fields and they already had all of their nitrogen and fertilizer on for the corn crop. They had like 180 pounds of nitrogen on that field.

“I was really interested if that was going to show up in the plants, but you can’t tell any difference between his plants and these plants with the extra nitrogen.

“That tells me that throwing a lot of nitrogen at the hemp is not really economically feasible. I don’t think it will pick it up and use it.

“One of the problems now is corn earworm has showed up in the last week to 10 days and they’re working on the plants. As soon as it dries up, we’re going to have to do some management on that.

“Right now, there are no pesticides labeled for hemp. That’s going to change. There are several coming on. We are using an organic product that’s on Illinois’ list of pesticides that we use for earworm or larvae infestations.”

On Harvesting

“We hope to get about two pounds per plant of material. We’re about two weeks from harvest, depending on the weather.

“There’s two things to really look at when determining when it’s time to harvest. If the THC levels start pushing up toward 0.3, you may want start thinking about harvest. When the hair crystals in the buds start to turn brown, that’s an indication the plant is ready to be harvested.

“Our plan is to use a disc mower to cut the plants down and let them air dry in the field until the plants are down to around 20% moisture.

“Then we’ll run the plants through the International combine to grind off all of the green leafy tissue, hopefully cutting the stems and the stalks out the back of the combine and the green leafy tissue will end up on the tank.

“We’ll off-load from the combine into silage wagons that will basically be set up like batch dryers and dry the hemp down to 10% to 13% and then fill the bags straight out of the silage wagon.

“If that doesn’t work and we end up with mold issues, I’m just going to take a chopper and blow it straight into the wagons and dry them down in there.

“Last year, we cut all of our plants down and hung them upside down in the corn crib and let them dry. We got about 1,600 plants in the corn crib. We left them in there until we got done with the corn and soybean harvest. The plants kept in there very well. There were no mold issues.

“The plants weren’t quite dry enough when we started processing the seeds, so we would take the plants down and we’d lay them down on a tarp in the shop overnight and we had a radiant heater on to dry down the plants. They were ready to process the next day.

“Hanging them works really well. I don’t think you’ll be able to get them quite down to the moisture content that you want just by hanging them.

“You might have to do a little additional drying after that. We had no mold issues. The only problems we had was the plants were seeded and the birds liked the seeds.”

On Oil Processing

“We have a processor built by Precision Extractors. It’s an ethanol extractor.

“I would call it a starter level extractor. We have a little bit of oil made that we’re going to send in for analysis to see exactly what we have for oil CBDs and check to make sure we don’t have any pesticide residue from stuff that might be floating around.

“It’ll do about 100 pounds of plant material a day. Hopefully when we have some oil that we can market, that’ll give a better understanding of what the people purchasing the oil exactly want for a product. We’re starting out small and then trying to work our way through the industry.

“Ideally I would like to have a large scale processing facility somewhere in west-central Illinois so we can help you guys get started.

“This year is going to be a little bit of a bumpy road. This industry just got started in Illinois April 1. It’s going to take some time to get the infrastructure built up and get connections made.”

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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