The success of your hemp CBD or CBG crop will depend on the efficiency of your harvest processes. Harvesting a commercial hemp crop is a carefully choreographed process where scheduling, labor, equipment, and facilities must be accounted for. As the hemp industry continues to mature, hemp farmers and equipment manufacturers have been working together to develop effective harvest techniques.
Today, hemp harvest practices borrow from both commercial agriculture and cannabis cultivation. To illustrate, farmers who grow hemp for bulk biomass get many of their harvest methods from industrial farming. Conversely, hemp producers who grow boutique flowers follow many of the careful harvest parameters of craft cannabis production. In this article, we’ll look specifically at how to harvest both hemp biomass and hemp flowers.
The harvesting process can be broken up into three broad phases:
- Choosing the right harvest time
- Harvesting your hemp
- Drying and curing your hemp
Part 1: Choosing the Right Time to Harvest Your Hemp
As a rule of thumb, full-term hemp requires 100 to 120 days to mature. Nonetheless, different geographies present both opportunities and challenges when it comes to timing a hemp harvest. In colder climates, you will want to choose hemp strains that finish by late September.
Choosing the right time to harvest your hemp will impact your ROI. If you harvest too early, your plants may not reach their full resin potential. Harvest too late, and your flowers could lose their potency. (Yes, CBD and CBG potency drops quickly after hemp plants reach maturity.) Even more, harvesting late in certain regions of the country like Colorado will put your crop at risk with early season frost and snow.
To hammer home how important good timing is, consider that harvesting 1,000 pounds of hemp biomass with 7% CBD instead of 8% CBD will mean a loss of approximately 10 pounds of CBD oil. With CBD oil selling at roughly $5 per gram, losing just 1% of CBD potency will result in a loss of $20,000 per 1,000 pounds of biomass.
As if finding this balance wasn’t difficult enough, farmers must also keep in mind that THC rates rise quickly as hemp plants reach maturation. According to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp farmers must keep their hemp crop below a 0.3% THC threshold. If you wait too long to harvest and your crop’s THC potency rises above 0.3%, you’ll have to throw away your entire crop.
How to Decide When to Harvest
In most regions of North America, hemp crops are ready for harvest between mid-August and early October. Farmers with a small hemp crop used to be able to use visual cues to determine the ideal time to harvest their crop. Looking closely, farmers could spot a plant’s trichomes (small, mushroom-like glands on hemp flowers). When the trichomes turn from clear to a milky white color, the plants are ready for harvest. Nowadays, even small farmers need to test to stay in compliance with regulations so going on visual clues is not recommended for beginners.
Industrial hemp farmers are better off determining the right harvest time by regularly testing their plants with a laboratory. While testing hemp crops might be expensive, it offers a great way to get exact readings on cannabinoid levels in your plants. By taking the guesswork out of harvesting, you will ensure your hemp crop remains compliant according to state and federal guidelines. As some states require testing before harvest, you might have to undertake this step at your hemp farm anyway.
Weather May Dictate Your Harvest
Farmers also need to keep an eye on the sky when choosing the right time to harvest their hemp crop. Farmers in the north of the country or at high altitudes must watch for an early cold snap. Hemp is a robust plant, but it can’t survive a hard frost. Additionally, harvest season also coincides with hurricane season, so farmers on the East Coast and Gulf Coast need to track hurricanes and tropical storms.
Rain can cause serious issues for hemp growers. Not only will excessive rain during harvest season contribute to broken branches on plants, but excessive moisture can help propagate mold. Large flowers are particularly susceptible to botrytis or “bud rot” in wet conditions.
Part 2: How to Harvest Hemp at Your Farm
Your harvest processes will be dictated by the type of CBD or CBG hemp you are growing. If you are growing hemp for CBD or CBG biomass, you can use industrial hemp farming equipment to harvest your crop. However, if you are growing hemp for smokable flowers, you will have to cut down plants individually by hand.
How to Harvest Hemp Flowers by Hand
Harvesting hemp by hand protects the integrity of the flower. As CBD and CBG flowers are sold as smokable products, you must ensure that trichomes, terpenes, and pistils are not damaged during the harvest process. Mishandling these delicate flowers can greatly reduce their value on the open market.
Harvesting hemp by hand is labor-intensive. Workers typically use machetes, shears, or tobacco knives to cut the stalks and bring the hemp to a waiting wagon or trailer. Where to cut the hemp depends on how the farmer intends to dry it. If you plan on screen-drying your hemp, you’ll want to cut smaller sections, so it is easier to lay them on the screens. If you are going to hang dry, you can afford to cut larger sections of the hemp.
How to Harvest Hemp Biomass with Machines
Hemp biomass requires different harvest processes than hemp flowers. As hemp biomass is grown on an industrial scale for CBD and CBG extracts, it doesn’t require as much care as hemp flowers. As such, farmers use industrial agriculture equipment like combines to harvest hemp biomass. By using combines, you can harvest acres of hemp in quick order.
Understanding Your Labor Needs
One of the most common mistakes new farmers make is underestimating the labor requirements of the hemp harvesting process. Farmers who don’t bring on enough labor could face dire financial consequences if their harvest falls behind schedule and their mature hemp plants run hot.
Farmers need to hire enough workers to efficiently harvest their hemp. They also need to build the harvesting time into their overall hemp schedule to make sure their plants don’t over-mature while the laborers work. It’s a good idea for workers to start harvesting hemp with the largest and densest flowers. Workers may also want to start by cutting top flowers first, leaving lower flowers to mature a little more before a second pass. The ACS Laboratory suggests that 15 experienced workers can harvest five to six acres of hemp per day.
New Farmers Should Start Small
We strongly recommend that farmers plant only a few acres of hemp for their first season, or even just a single acre. Planting a small amount of acreage will help farmers understand how much labor they need per acre of hemp, so they can scale up appropriately when they plant more next year. Also, planting a single acre of hemp lets farmers experiment with growing techniques and helps them understand how hemp performs on their farm before making a large investment in the crop.
Part 3: Drying Your Hemp
Some farmers send their hemp biomass directly to a processor after harvesting, but many choose to dry and cure the hemp on their property before this step. Again, your choice for drying and curing hemp will largely be dictated by whether you are growing flowers or biomass. Drying the hemp helps lock in the hemp’s quality and potency. If a hemp plant isn’t cured properly, it could grow mold or lower the quality (and overall market value) of the product.
Drying is another part of the hemp harvesting process where farmers use different methods and are actively experimenting to improve their outcomes. All farmers will agree that drying requires a drying facility. This should be a roofed structure with good ventilation. Many farmers use a barn, shed, or warehouse to serve as their drying facility.
Ventilation Is Key
One of the most important factors in the drying and curing process is good ventilation. To achieve proper airflow, you should use wall fans, inline fans, and industrial blowers.
How to Dry Hemp
When it comes to drying hemp, methods vary. Some farmers use racks or screens. A common method is to hang hemp plants upside down from wires. If you plan to use this method, we recommend that you break off the branches of your hemp plants and hang them individually.
When Is Your Hemp Dry?
How dry does hemp need to be before a farmer can send it off to the processor? Typically, farmers will want to get below 15% moisture (below 12% is even better.)
Curing Your Hemp
Some processors will expect farmers to go beyond drying their hemp and cure the hemp as well, which means taking out even more moisture. Curing adds a lot of time to the drying process, but it also locks in the smell and taste the flowers.
During the drying and curing process, farmers will also want to test hemp plants one more time. The final test will let farmers know the CBD or CBG content of their crop and ensure the crop is under the THC limit. The test can also show any contamination that could affect the quality of the crop.
The last step in the curing and drying process will depend on what the processor asks for. Some farmers send their dried hemp directly to the processors while others shuck the hemp and remove the stalk. Still, others will trim the hemp, cutting away the leaves and sending only the flowers. Trimming can be performed by hand or, for larger operations, with the help of a mechanical trimmer.
Have More Questions on How to Harvest Hemp?
Here at High Grade Hemp Seed, we get the question “how do you harvest hemp?” all the time. The answer really depends on your goals, budget, and personal preferences. If you still want to know how to harvest CBD strains or harvest industrial hemp, contact our representatives today and we would be glad to lend you our expertise.