Cannabis Cultivation is More Math than Science: The Role of Data in A Successful Grow Operation

April 7, 2020
Brett Strauss

Volume 3, Issue 3

A closer look at how cannabis cultivation management platforms can track data for you and make recommendations based on intelligence and logic discerned from the numbers.

The key to being successful in cannabis cultivation is a numbers game-it’s about percentages and squeezing an extra 2–5% out of everything you do in your grow. So it’s about math, not just science. Cannabis cultivation management platforms are designed to track that data for you and make recommendations based on intelligence and logic discerned from the numbers. Here’s how they work and why accurate data is critical within each function of the operation.

The key to being successful in cannabis cultivation is a numbers game-it’s about percentages, and squeezing an extra 2%, 3%, or 5% out of everything you do in your grow. So, contrary to traditional agricultural thinking, it’s not just about science: It’s about math.

For example, say your grow plans to harvest 30,000 plants. What if you could increase the average grams per plant by just 1 g? That could translate to an additional $360,000 in retail sales based on nearly zero additional cost. When you don’t maximize your yields, you leave money on the table.

Whether your operation is indoor or outdoor, small or large, simple or complex, investing in a cannabis cultivation management system (CCMS) will increase your success exponentially. These platforms are designed to track data on even the most minute aspects of your grow. Using this data, a CCMS makes recommendations based on intelligence and logic that will help you operate a more successful and financially stable cultivation program.

Cannabis customers can be demanding and fickle in this nascent industry. Wholesalers seem to want it all-they want what they want when they want it, in a wide range of strains, with quality and consistency. At the same time, cultivators are often juggling multiple strains at multiple stages of growth, each exposed to different growing conditions (soil, light, nutrients, temperature), which means a grow manager is tasked with tracking a whole bunch of data, and tracking all of the operation’s employees on top of that.

Whiteboards and logbooks are the old-school method of tracking this information, especially among those who were growing plants long before it was legal. But it’s virtually impossible to track all the different data points manually, not to mention the monumental task of assessing the data and understanding its results and implications. Factor in the potential for human error and your grow could see dollars circling the drain.

A cultivation management platform designed specifically for cannabis that provides real-time grow analytics will give you the power to maximize efficiency, lower costs, and increase your yields and profits. It’s time to trade in those whiteboards for a dashboard.

Incorporating Data into Your Grow

While your whiteboards may be telling you what you want to hear, interpreting those results and making shifts in your strategy is totally subjective. When data is used, coupled with AI technology such as IBM Watson, the numbers don’t lie. Collecting more data, and collecting quality data, will give your organization information that will directly translate to the bottom line.

Cannabis is inherently a tech-averse industry, but setting up your grow to collect valuable data and make predictive analyses and forecasts is relatively easy. Let sensors and high definition cameras do the work for you. When properly installed, these tools are working 24/7 to capture the inputs, outputs, and milestones in every aspect of your operation. The data gathers history over time and is able to make assumptions and recommendations, giving you a solid overview of your operation. And while sensors are gathering data, they’re also monitoring the operation for problems and potential risks-and most have the ability to notify your team via instant cell phone alerts. Another important factor is the ability to use radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking on plant tags. There’s also an increased use of smartphones for visual data collection including reporting deficiencies, pests, and other abnormalities.

Grows that opt to simply gather data in the primary functions of their operation are leaving money on the table. There’s no doubt about it: continuous and comprehensive data monitoring produces the best plants and the biggest profit.

Establishing Data Points

Most grows are organized by stage of growth. Every plant, every room, every table is subject to ever-changing conditions. Add dozens of different strains and different pot sizes to the equation, not to mention variable water tanks and nutrient systems, and you’ve got a very complex working environment. Add in lighting and other environmental factors and it becomes mind boggling. There’s just simply no way to manage it manually. When you’re relying on whiteboards and personal observation, the risk for human error and subjectivity is great and costly. Most people don’t realize the sheer number of variables they’re dealing with. Multiple factors across multiple rooms exponentially increase the risk, but also the potential reward.

The only way to measure this is through data. Real data will give you the numbers, now and long term, that can have a marked impact on profits.

Let’s look at some of the specifics of what this data can track. Assume a grow operation is working with 20 different strains and has 100 plants within each strain. You may have multiple rooms, one for each stage of plant growth-let’s say four rooms. So, you already have 8000 different data points. Now let’s look at the environmental conditions for each plant: lighting, nutrition, water, humidity, pH level, airflow, temperature, and more. You see the problem presented? It’s just humanly impossible to track it all, much less mine the data to improve your results going forward.

Investors may ask, “Which room has the best growing conditions and produces the healthiest, heartiest plant at each stage? What is the energy usage cost per room? Where can you reduce costs without impacting margin?” Grow managers may ask, “When was this room of plants last watered? What was the water temperature? What’s the soil composition of these plants versus those that may have impacted growth? Which cocktail of nutrients yields the healthiest and most robust plants? What lighting works best for each strain within each stage of growth?”

See, the questions are endless. A CCMS can help do the work for you and keep track, set reminders, and make recommendations by strain for each stage of growth. For example, as lighting becomes more sophisticated, tracking its impact on the health and growth of plants could become one of the most significant investments you make.

Predictive Analysis and Forecasting

When you’re working with such high value crops, it’s critical to understand which strains are the most profitable to your business. Think of your strain portfolio like your stock portfolio. Which ones are working the hardest for you and which ones should you consider eliminating or replacing?

But it’s what you do (or don’t do) with that data that helps maximize the efficiencies of your organization. That’s the beauty of these platforms and their algorithms that are capable of automatically learning from data and making predictions based on data.

Your CCMS will be taking thousands of measurements each day, monitoring how plants are reacting to the myriad conditions. Those results are plugged into the platform’s algorithms to give you insights, recommendations, and course corrections. All in the name of efficiency and profit.

Built-in A/B testing lets you compare and contrast different environmental situations. The math gives you the confidence that you are doing the best job possible. The overall goal is predictability. If you grow this strain, using these tasks, using this feed, using these lights, in this room, at this temperature, at this humidity level, at this CO2 level, on this table, while being managed by this team member, you will make the maximum amount of revenue possible for that strain. That’s how you maximize your yields at the strain level.

You also need to pick the best strains. The best strain is the one that grows the most grams per plant in the least number of days, sells for the highest price per pound, and sits on your shelf the least amount of time. That’s the goal. When you do identify this “perfect” strain, it should be the largest yielding percentage of your crop.

A good CCMS should also be able to track strain genetics in a “generational” format. You can track and monitor cuts taken from mother plants over the course of many generations and document results. Did your third round of cuttings from that mother perform better than your second round of cuttings? If so, what were the variables along the way and how will setting those standards improve your bottom-line results?

Here’s another example: Sativas can take 30% longer to grow than indicas, meaning they cost more in terms of rent, electricity, HR, legal, and so on. They are generally less profitable to grow than indica strains. But customers demand variety when they are shopping in the dispensary. So, which strains are your most profitable? Are you on track to produce enough to meet market demand? A CCMS can help with these projections so your grow schedule is synchronized with what retailers and consumers want. Being able to negotiate better rates from buyers, based upon consistent quality and quantity, can only happen if you maintain a deep understanding of how to deliver both.

Controlling costs is paramount to running a profitable grow. Data can be utilized to lower energy costs, reduce waste, and yield a higher return on investment (ROI).

The advanced reporting function of a CCMS can predict and inform crop profitability. Analyzing historical crop data can help a grow operation maximize revenue. Investors and other stakeholders can see exactly what your crop’s value is at any point in time.

There’s one aspect of cannabis cultivation where growers are leaving money on the table-their consumables inventory. They’re relying on random physical counts of the products and organic materials they have on the shelf and, too often, these products hit their expiration date before they’re used, resulting in wasted time, money, and materials.

Personnel Management

Cannabis cultivation is a high touch industry, meaning that many of the functions performed are physical. Managing, controlling, and evaluating that manpower is a monumental task unto itself. But a CCMS eliminates many of the HR functions for you.

Traditionally, cultivation employees check the whiteboard outside of each room to see their tasks for the day. By moving this list to each employee’s mobile phone, your CCMS can track those tasks down to the individual plant level. This gives the grower a better understanding of the true cost each time a team member touches a plant.

CCMSs are pretty intuitive. Most will have an auto enrollment feature for scheduling employees and their respective tasks. The system will auto assign tasks to employees who are capable of doing the required tasks, cross-referencing their skill sets with their availability. The technology can discern between group tasks and individual tasks. You’ll know exactly what your team should be accomplishing for the day and get alerts when these tasks are, or are not, completed. Which team member is the best at lollipopping your pants? Is it the person that works the fastest? Nope. It’s the team member whose lollipopped plants have the highest yield. Measuring the impact of each staff member’s activities is critical to running a tight ship. The team member who is best at performing each task is measured in financial return, not necessarily just speed. The ability to communicate, update, and track employee activities, and get detailed analytics about each team member’s value, is key to running a smooth operation.

Data’s Role in Eliminating Risk

A lot of cannabis farmers say they don’t sleep well at night worrying about what could go wrong on their farm or indoor grow while it’s unattended. Just imagine getting a call that a water tank is overfilling and at risk of drowning crops. This is where technology comes in. By using a CCMS that’s tracking room conditions, that farmer would be notified immediately and could turn off that water faucet remotely, without ever having to leave home.

Cannabis cultivation is a 24/7 business. It takes a lot of manpower to continuously monitor environmental factors like room temperatures. With a CCMS, it can all be managed from a grow manager’s cell phone. A simple touch of a button, even remotely, can even turn off lights or adjust the air conditioning.

By continuously analyzing the numbers related to your crop-lighting, feeding material and schedule, grow and harvest time, and trimming-and comparing them to the results of each harvest, you’ll learn how to best use your limited square footage to make the maximum profit.

Precision is the key. The ability to identify and avoid your mistakes while continually learning from process histories is the key to success.

About the Author

Brett Strauss is the President/Founder of NetExam in Dallas, Texas. Direct correspondence to: brett@netexam.com

How to Cite this Article

B. Strauss, Cannabis Science and Technology3(3), 41–43 (2020).

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