Seed: Limited Processing Options Hurt Profits
In the rolling hills of North Dakota’s Grant County, Clarence Laub grows 2,400 dryland acres of corn, hemp, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat on predominantly sandy loam soil, alongside a 300-head commercial Angus operation. Laub, 25, gathered what little information he could find and grew 10 acres of hemp for seed in 2016. In 2017, he ramped up to 240 acres, but after dealing with the whims of a capricious market, dropped to 60 acres in 2018.
Weather permitting, Laub plants hemp at the tail-end of corn, around May 20 to June 1. He used an air drill in 2016 on 10" rows, but experienced seed cracking and seed depth irregularity beyond his ½" target. In 2017, he switched to a no-till box drill on 6" rows that “worked great and provided accurate seeding depth.”
The tighter 6" rows were an improvement, particularly on a crop without herbicide options. “The close rows make it canopy so much faster and avoid weed issues,” Laub says. “My planting population is six to 12 plants in a square foot—dense. That is really thick when you’ve got a 7' crop a few inches apart.”
Laub hasn’t experienced disease or insect issues, and with few management angles, the stand is the story. “You need to try and get perfect planting. There are no chemicals to rely on, so what you’ve got is what you’ve got,” he says. “In my experience, getting a good stand is the hardest part.”
In 2018, Laub planted a relatively small (5' or 7') Canadian variety, Hemp Genetics International CRS-1. “There was no blowover in the wind even with some 80 mph gusts. The stalks are seriously strong, kind of like fl ax on steroids,” he says. “Once the field is harvested, you don’t dare jump down from the combine into the hard stalks without being careful.”
Laub harvests at the beginning of September when the plants are fairly green with the same equipment he uses for small grains: a draper head and a standard combine. In 2016 and 2017, Laub used a shredder and vertical tillage to take care of postharvest biomass. However, he used a haybine in 2018 to cut biomass for baling, storage—and a market down the road.
Hemp seed prices have subsided, a downward trend Laub hopes will reverse. Seed brought $1 per pound in 2016, he recalls; 50¢ in 2017, 40¢ early in 2018, but 30¢ closer to harvest. Laub’s seed yields averaged 1,500 lb. to 1,600 lb. per acre. “I know the Canadians are getting 1,800 lb. to 2,000 lb. per acre,” he says.
Cutting is best at 18% to 20% moisture, according to Laub; lower moisture carries the risk of plants dropping seed. Hemp seed is problematic for storage. “You can store at 9%, but 6% to 7% is even better. A grain dryer is an investment to consider if you go with significant acreage,” he says.
Laub doesn’t have many options for processing, and his best bet is contracting with the Canadians. “Right now, hemp for seed is not a highly profitable crop, but it could be a great income source with infrastructure,” he says. “For anyone starting, just go 20 acres or less and get to learning. When processing arrives, you’ll be ready for large acreage.”
Fiber: The Easiest Hemp?
Twenty miles northeast of Louisville, Ky., Steve Rutledge operates Professional Land Management and oversees a variety of crops on numerous operations. In the past three years, four clients have grown hemp for CBD, seed or fi ber. Through trial and error, Rutledge has learned the ins-and-outs of fi ber production, the “easiest form of hemp farming,” he says.
Rutledge’s preplanting protocol is light tillage behind soybeans from the previous fall. He prefers no soil disturbance, but says seeds fare better after preparation with a light disk because they don’t like compaction.
After dropping 75 lb. of NPK, he uses a no-till drill on 8" rows to plant at an eighth of an inch. With a 50 lb. to 60 lb. per acre seeding rate, the soil shades quickly and weed suppression is not an issue, according to Rutledge.
Although he targets May 5 to 10, he’s never been able to plant before May 25 due to seed availability and import logistics. “It’s paperwork heavy and takes time. You need the right variety at the right time, and there’s lots of room for error dealing with foreign countries,” Rutledge adds.
Seed quality can be fi lled with trapdoors. In 2017, Rutledge purchased seed advertised as 75% certified, but after testing, discovered the rate was only 60%. “These things are a reality growers must consider,” he says.
In his first year of hemp for fiber, Rutledge paid $7 per pound for seed, which doesn’t allow for profit. “Seed costs have gone down, and I’m hoping they settle at $2 per pound,” he says.
About 60 days after planting, the hemp for fiber is ready to harvest. As soon as flowering starts, preferably before forming seed, the hemp needs to be cut, Rutledge explains. After officials from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture test and ensure the THC level is below 0.3%, harvest kicks off.
Rutledge says the tough, fibrous nature of hemp makes it a harvest beast. “Use machinery with rotation, pickup heads or rolling bearings, and hemp can wrap to the point you have to cut or burn it out,” he warns.
After trying a haybine and a disk mower with no success, he found a solution by cutting hemp with a sickle bar mower, leaving it on the ground to dry for 30 days, which allows the fiber to separate easier, and flipping it with a rotary rake. A round baler with knives in the chamber prepares the hemp for storage, prior to shipping to a processor via flatbed trailers.
Due to seed availability issues and weather vagaries, Rutledge has hit yields between 1 ton and 2.5 tons per acre. “There have been test trials with 5-ton yields, but we don’t have access to those proprietary varieties,” he says.
Hemp for fiber brings 7¢ to 11¢ per pound, or sometimes a minimum guarantee per acre, whichever is larger, Rutledge says. “You can try to negotiate a deal with your processor to share in seed costs. Another thing we believe we’re seeing is a yield response in grains behind hemp, but we need more time for data to pile up,” he adds.
Rutledge urges caution whether planting hemp for CBD, seed or fiber: “There is so much misinformation out there. Hemp farming of any kind is trial, error and observation—classic learning on the go.”
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