Genetics Advice for Cannabis Cultivation Start-Ups

Columns - Hort How-To

Answers to 5 key questions to start off on the right genetic foot.

September 12, 2019

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From the moment a new cannabis company receives its cultivation license, the race is on to become a “first mover.” Businesses that are first to market benefit from more media attention, stronger investor interest and greater market share, and they typically experience fewer regulatory hurdles. For example, regulators in Colombia are proposing changes that make it more difficult to get licensed—three years after signing into law the cannabis regulations for commercial producers.

But cultivators may face launch delays if they’re struggling to select genetics, a critical step in production planning. Poor decisions in this area can lead to bottlenecks that result in missed deadlines and delayed market entry. If done correctly, however, launching cultivation with the right varieties can help smooth production planning, guarantee low operational costs and contribute to rapid expansion.

Here are five key questions that decision-makers at every start-up should ask themselves when navigating the genetics selection process.

1. How many varieties should I begin with?

For most start-ups, the common belief is that more is better. This is especially true for international cannabis companies entering foreign markets. It’s not uncommon for these companies to announce plans for 50 or 100 genetics to be grown at a new site. This practice helps boost investor interest and intimidates the competition.

But this is exactly what leads to the downfall of many new cannabis cultivation operations. Even if the end goal is to cultivate a large number of varieties, this shouldn’t be the strategy at start-up as too many varieties can hamper the ability to scale up rapidly, and launching cultivation with dozens of new varieties can become a production scheduling nightmare. Growers need to develop a production program that treats all varieties the same. Planting densities, nutritional requirements, pruning schedules and harvest times should be identical. The more varieties in production, the more likely it is that special changes will need to be made to accommodate certain strains.

Avoid these complications by limiting the number of cultivars you start with. For example, starting with five to 10 varieties with similar cultivation requirements rather than 50 can reduce the likelihood of growing challenges. Wait until production has begun and money is rolling in before trialing or introducing new varieties. Until then, focus on mastering how to grow just a handful of strains. When the time is right to introduce something new, select varieties that behave well within your existing production schedule and avoid anything new that will require special attention.

2. Should I start from clone or seed?

Starting from clone is a huge time saver because most cannabis seed genetics are not very stable. Germinating 10 seeds of the same variety can easily result in six or seven different versions (phenotypes), with each exhibiting different growth characteristics, yield potential and cannabinoid profiles. Refining these genetics into something stable and consistent is time consuming, and time is a precious resource for start-ups.

Planting clones enables an operator to save time by launching cultivation with known genetics, but there are two critical factors to consider before choosing this option.

The first is legality. In countries implementing cannabis cultivation programs for the first time, it is often prohibited to start from clones. This is typically related to traceability concerns. In these instances, all licensed producers must begin production from seed. Second, sharing vegetative plant material is one of the most common ways that plant pathogens enter a grow site. Spider mites and russet mites can hide in the smallest crevices of live plant material, while root aphids and thrips larvae can be present in the soil. Clones taken from a mother plant exhibiting powdery mildew will most likely demonstrate symptoms of the same disease sooner rather than later.

Growers can take a number of steps to minimize the risk of introducing plant pathogens through infected clones:

  • Inspect the clones upon arrival. Even if things looked good during your due diligence visit to the propagator’s site, if the clones that you receive have visible insects or disease, refuse to accept them.
  • Quarantine new clones for a period of six to eight weeks. Within this time frame, any problems that were not evident upon receipt of the clone will become visible, giving you a chance to cull them before they enter the general production population.
  • Establish a preventative pest management program incorporating beneficial insects, bioactive products and a vigilant scouting program. This can help mitigate the effects of any pathogens that enter your cultivation program.

3. Should I breed my own proprietary genetics?

No! At least not during the start-up phase. While breeding your own proprietary genetics sounds romantic, the reality is that it is a very long process and not appropriate for start-ups interested in becoming first movers. In the best-case scenario, breeding for desirable characteristics can take 18 to 24 months. In most cases, it will take longer, and during that time, potential customers will spend their money elsewhere.

Also, breeding involves pollen, something that growers typically avoid at all costs. Yields of smokable flower or extractable oil dramatically decrease once a flowering cannabis crop is pollinated, and the risk of unwanted pollination increases anywhere that breeding is present.

Hundreds of cannabis cultivars already exist today, and it is much faster to identify, grow and refine these existing genetics than to breed your own. Most start-ups experience a mountain of unforeseen issues when they launch cultivation, so why add to those by starting the operation with a breeding program? Like most risky maneuvers, it is more appropriate to explore this option once production is up and running and hopefully in an area far away from your female flowering plants.

4. Which varieties should I start with?

Future markets, especially for international export, won’t care about specific strain names because they will (at least at first) be medical markets. A plant that is cultivated in South America, for example, and whose extracted oil is shipped to a European market to treat patients, will likely not appear on a pharmacy shelf with the original strain name. What doctors, patients and pharmacists are interested in are active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), not strain names. Also, popular varieties change frequently, so establishing commercial-scale production based only on a few current-day winners can hurt future competitiveness.

When selecting new varieties, look past the catchy names and concentrate on the API. Select strains that are high in THC or CBD, but don’t ignore the other cannabinoids and terpenes. Current research is uncovering the value inherent in other molecules present in cannabis, and their application in treating various medical conditions looks promising. An operator who selects genetics based on THC and CBD alone will have to start from scratch once future markets begin demanding other cannabinoids.

The cannabis market today is moving away from dry flower and toward extracts, and it is common practice to modify crude cannabis oil to increase terpenes, decrease THC or increase CBD with the addition of isolates. Rather than worry about finding the “perfect” strain to grow, concentrate on cultivating plants rich in all cannabinoids. This will hedge against the risks that come with shifting market demands and help ensure that your operation will produce an end product that appeals to every customer (medical or adult-use).

5. What characteristics should I look for?

Commercial cannabis strains should be efficient to grow and fit seamlessly into any production schedule. Here are the most important plant characteristics to keep in mind as you build your genetic library:

Flowering time: Eight to nine weeks is the norm. Quicker-finishing varieties are desirable because they allow for more harvests per year and more revenue per square foot of growing.

Growth habit: A short, compact plant is easier to manage than a wild, stretchy variety. The latter ends up costing more in terms plant support (netting, tomato cages or staking) as well as labor (excess pruning, tying and de-leafing).

Flower production: Whether you’re selling dry flower or oil, both are directly correlated to the plant’s yield. An excellent-tasting variety that doesn’t yield well will be more expensive to grow. Search for a variety that yields a minimum of 30 grams per square foot each harvest.

Oil production: Some cannabis plants generate more oil than others. Drier plants may have a beautiful flower structure and aroma, but at harvest time they exhibit very few trichomes. Other varieties begin exuding copious amounts of resin quickly after initiating flower and some even do so while still in the vegetative stage. Aim for a minimum extraction ratio of 1 gram of oil for every 10 grams of dry flower.

Resistance to disease: This is much easier said than done, but selecting varieties that resist botrytis or powdery mildew will go a long way toward protecting your operation against devastating crop losses. This is especially important for growers cultivating in open fields and/or in tropical climates in greenhouses, where control of the growing environment is impossible and chemical fungicides are prohibited.

Rapid rooting: Some varieties root faster and more vigorously than others. This is a critical component to production scheduling, because growers typically allow two to three weeks for rooting and expect at least an 80 percent rooting success rate. Varieties that take longer to root should be avoided because they will lead to production bottlenecks and scheduling headaches.

Special requirements: Some varieties require special care that no other variety demands. Certain strains are more susceptible to over-watering, or have extreme fertilizer demands or sensitivities. Avoid introducing these kinds of plants into your production program. They will disrupt production scheduling and pull resources away from other, less labor-intensive varieties. These unique strains may be interesting to grow at home, but for a startup commercial grow operation, they are best to be avoided.

Ryan Douglas is the owner of Ryan Douglas Cultivation, LLC. He has worked in commercial horticulture for 20 years and specializes in legal cannabis start-ups.