The Future of Crop Steering: Real-Time Substrate Maps for Enhanced Crop Steering & CEA Diagnostics

March 18, 2024by Grownetics Staff0

Understanding the importance of substrate conditions across cultivars and cultivation zones is crucial for commercial greenhouse and indoor cannabis growers seeking to enhance crop steering and optimize their Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) strategies. Microclimate mapping helps decipher variations in Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) and transpiration rates across plant canopies, but substrate mapping is equally vital in deciphering how irrigation practices influence root zone conditions throughout a facility. By implementing wireless substrate sensors  (see wireless Wet150) with substrate maps, growers gain real-time insights into water and nutrient variability across zone and cultivar. This data-driven approach not only enhances crop steering precision but also aids in diagnosing yield-limiting factors by strain and microclimate zone. By monitoring and mapping substrate conditions, growers can achieve significant improvements in growth, yield, quality, and resource efficiency, making substrate sensing and mapping a pivotal tool for today’s commercial operators.

Grownetics sensor map dashboard, crop steering software, CEA management software
Grownetics map dashboard – substrate water content mapping.

The Importance of Substrate Mapping


The Crop Steering Revolution

Crop steering enables growers to influence plant growth by meticulously managing generative or vegetative environmental cues such as light spectrum and duration, temperature, humidity, VPD, nutrient balance, and irrigation. This fine control is fundamental to accelerating growth and plant development and imperative to ensuring the highest quality end product consistently at scale. With the advent of Grownetics real-time substrate maps, crop steering has become even more precise. These maps and dashboards offer a comprehensive view of the root zone conditions, providing actionable data that can be used to tailor cultivation practices to the unique requirements of each crop. This advancement marks a significant step in agricultural technology, allowing for a level of understanding and diagnostics that was previously unattainable. As a result, growers can now steer their crops towards desired outcomes with greater confidence and predictability, ensuring every plant reaches its full potential. As we always remind our customers, your plants are rarely experiencing what your control system is telling you.

Understanding Irrigation Set Point Variability Across Cultivation Zones

An effective irrigation strategy is at the heart of successful crop steering, and understanding set point variability across your facility is critical. Substrate mapping provides growers with a clear picture of moisture distribution and nutrient levels in the root zone across an entire cultivation zone. This information is crucial because VPD variation across the zone leads to plants transpiring at different rates in different areas, for example we see plants on the outer edge of benches and rooms transpiring more than plants in the middle of the room surrounded by a dense canopy. Even the most minor inconsistencies in root zone water content and nutrient availability can lead to significant variations in plant health and yields. By analyzing sensor data and substrate maps, growers can adjust their irrigation strategy to ensure that each plant receives the precise amount of water and nutrients it requires. This not only maximizes the efficacy of water and fertilizer use but also minimizes the risk of plant stress caused by over or under-watering. Substrate mapping, therefore, plays a vital role in helping growers to implement precision irrigation, which is a critical to scaling up precision data-driven agriculture.

Caveats of Overwatering and Overfeeding

Overwatering and overfeeding are common pitfalls when not measuring root zone conditions directly. Of course you would want to error on this side in an abundance of caution, but it has detrimental effects on crop health and yields. Excess water in the substrate can lead to root hypoxia, reducing the plant’s ability to absorb necessary nutrients and making it susceptible to root diseases. Similarly, too much fertilizer can result in nutrient toxicity, causing leaf burn and stunted growth. These issues are all too common and underscore the importance of precise root zone monitoring and mapping. By providing real-time data on moisture and nutrient levels available to roots, growers can avoid the over application of resources. This proactive approach not only safeguards the plants but also contributes to considerable cost savings and reduction of waste leachate ending up in the environment. In essence, substrate mapping is a critical tool for maintaining the delicate balance required for optimal plant health and productivity.


Benefits of Substrate Sensing and Mapping


Grownetics wireless substrate sensor in an indoor cannabis grow room.
Grownetics wireless sensors have a 2 mile wireless range and 2-5yr battery life.

Crop Steering without the Guesswork

Substrate sensing and mapping take the guesswork out of crop steering by providing definitive data on the root zone environment. Growers no longer have to rely on anecdotal evidence, like picking up a pot, or generalized guidelines (hand water for 10 seconds a plant) to make decisions about irrigation and nutrition. Instead, they can use the precise information from wireless crop steering sensors to understand the specific requirements of their crops in real time. This level of detail allows for adjustments to be made on the fly, ensuring that each plant is given exactly what it needs for optimal growth. Crop steering becomes a science rather than an art, with clear metrics driving every action. This shift not only improves the consistency and quality of the plants but also boosts the confidence of the cultivation team in their management decisions. The result is a more efficient, reliable, and productive grow operation.

Improved Growth Rate, Yield, and Quality

The implementation of substrate sensing and mapping has a direct and positive impact on growth rate, yield, and quality of crops. By providing a detailed understanding of the substrate environment, growers can optimize the conditions for plant development. This leads to faster growth rates as plants have constant access to the ideal balance of water and nutrients. Higher yields are also a key benefit, as plants are less likely to experience stress that could hinder their development. Additionally, the quality of the harvest improves because plants grown under such finely tuned conditions are able to express their genetic potential to the fullest. Each fruit, flower, or leaf produced is of higher quality, with better taste, color, and shelf-life. Ultimately, the advantages provided by substrate sensing and mapping translate into tangible benefits for both the growers and the end consumers.


20-40% Reductions in Water Consumption and Nutrient Costs

One of the most significant benefits of substrate sensing and mapping is the reduction in water consumption and nutrient costs. By utilizing detailed substrate data, growers can apply water and nutrients with unparalleled precision, preventing waste. This not only leads to financial savings but also supports sustainable agriculture practices by conserving water—a critical resource in many farming regions. Precision irrigation, informed by data from crop steering sensors, ensures that plants receive no more and no less than what is required for optimal growth. As a result, the overuse of fertilizers is curbed, which not only reduces costs but also minimizes the environmental impact of agriculture. These reductions contribute to a more profitable and eco-friendly farming model that helps growers maintain a competitive edge in an increasingly competitive market.


Role of Grownetics Wireless Substrate Sensors


Wireless Monitoring of Water and Nutrient Availability

Grownetics wireless substrate sensors are the most precise, cost effective and easy to deploy sensors in the market. These sensors have a wireless range of up to 2 miles and a battery life of 2-10 years depending on polling interval, and they provide continuous, real-time data on water and nutrient levels directly in the root zone. By monitoring these parameters, growers can quickly respond to the plants’ needs, adjusting irrigation and fertilization for maximum growth rate and efficiency. The sensors help to identify dry spots or areas with excessive moisture, enabling targeted interventions. Moreover, tracking nutrient availability ensures that plants are not being underfed or exposed to harmful concentrations of fertilizers. The data collected by the Wet150 sensors are second to none when it comes to precision and reliability, which can often be the difference between crop steering and guessing. See below for a comparison of the  Wet-150 sensors accuracy vs the leading competitor.

The Next-Gen Wireless Wet150 Substrate Sensor

Achieving the highest level of precision in substrate monitoring requires sensors that are accurately calibrated. The Wet150 substrate sensors key to success is through the extensive testing and calibration procedures conducted by Delta T in collaboration with the prestigious University of Aberdeen and the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). This sensor has been calibrated to a wide range of the most common substrates and accounts for variances in texture, density, and water retention qualities of different substrates saturated at different water content and EC levels. The result is data of unparalleled accuracy, which is essential for making informed decisions in precision agriculture. With the Wet150, growers can be confident in the sensor’s ability to provide reliable information, leading to better crop steering outcomes and ultimately, higher quality yields. This precision tool is an invaluable asset for those aiming to excel in the competitive field of high-performance cultivation.

Product photo of grownetics wireless wet-150 sensor from Delta T in a cannabis grow
The wireless Wet-150 EC and VWC sensor is the highest precision crop steering sensor on the market.

The Impact on Different Cannabis Strains Response to Irrigation and Environmental Control Strategy

Different cannabis strains have unique responses to irrigation and environmental control strategies, which is where precision agriculture tools like the Wet150 substrate sensor play a crucial role. These sensors enable growers to understand and cater to the specific water and nutrient needs of each strain at every stage of growth. For instance, some strains may thrive on less water, developing deeper root systems, while others might require a more consistent moisture level to prevent stress. Environmental controls that adjust temperature and humidity are also strain-dependent, with each variety having its own optimal conditions for growth and cannabinoid production. By monitoring substrate conditions and adjusting the environmental controls spatially via microclimate and substrate maps, growers can maximize the genetic potential of each cannabis strain across large cultivation zones or vertical racks. This leads to a more consistent product in terms of potency, flavor, and effects, which is highly valued in the competitive cannabis market.

Conclusion: Future of Crop Steering and CEA Diagnostics

The Unavoidable Need for Real-time Monitoring and Mapping

The future of crop steering and Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) diagnostics is deeply intertwined with the need for real-time mapping in addition to monitoring. The dynamic nature of growing conditions and the complexity of plant needs make it essential to have continuous access to accurate contextual data. Real-time substrate maps provide this by delivering instant feedback on the root zone environment, enabling growers to make swift and informed decisions. This is not just a luxury, but a necessity for maintaining competitive edge and achieving sustainable, high-yield production. As the agriculture industry continues to move towards more technologically advanced methods, the integration of these mapping and monitoring systems will become standard practice. Growers who adopt these systems now will be ahead of the curve, prepared for the increasingly data-driven future of agriculture.

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