Sim­pli­fi­ca­tion the key to suc­cess

Green­house grow­ing can be very prof­itable if man­aged prop­erly.

NZ Grower - - Future Focus -

In good con­di­tions crops grown in green­houses will yield 10 to 20 times more each year than a sim­i­lar out­door crop. Typ­i­cal green­house crops in­clude toma­toes, cap­sicums, chilies, cu­cum­bers, egg­plants, let­tuces, wit­loof, cour­gettes, sprouted beans and other herbs/mi­cro­greens.

Many grow­ers raise their crops hy­dro­pon­i­cally, us­ing dif­fer­ent ways of trick­ling nutri­ent so­lu­tions through the soil-less grow­ing medium. It’s a high-pre­ci­sion grow­ing sys­tem which is cap­i­tal in­ten­sive be­cause of the high cost of ba­sic equip­ment. It needs high en­ergy, fer­tiliser and labour in­puts but is very prof­itable if man­aged prop­erly.

In or­der to max­imise prof­itabil­ity of such sys­tems, there are three things to con­cen­trate on;

• Min­imis­ing in­vest­ment costs and re­source in­puts

• Max­imis­ing re­source use ef­fi­ciency, yield and crop qual­ity

• Au­tomat­ing as much as pos­si­ble and mak­ing ev­ery­thing sim­ple and cost ef­fec­tive.

Even though it’s men­tioned last sim­plic­ity is al­ways an over-arch­ing goal and is not nec­es­sar­ily the op­po­site of high pre­ci­sion. Sure, high-tech can be ad­vanced, but the op­er­at­ing prin­ci­ples and its use can be very sim­ple as the less that needs to be done to achieve a goal the bet­ter. In green­house crop pro­duc­tion de­mand-driven fer­til­iza­tion reaches peak per­for­mance.

Grow­ers want to con­trol all the ma­jor pa­ram­e­ters in­de­pen­dently, even though they’re striv­ing for sim­plic­ity in each. So, for ex­am­ple, ir­ri­gation and nutri­ent sup­ply should be con­trolled as two sep­a­rate and eas­ily ad­justable in­puts, even though they’re ap­plied to­gether as one nutri­ent so­lu­tion.

Min­imis­ing in­vest­ment costs In­vest­ment costs can be low­ered by mak­ing the sys­tem as sim­ple as pos­si­ble, but this can be tricky, as many fac­tors are in play at the same time.

One good ex­am­ple is the fer­ti­ga­tion tech­nique. For in­stance, if the sys­tem is hy­dro­ponic, ir­ri­gation and fer­til­i­sa­tion is of­ten driven by a re-cir­cu­lat­ing nutri­ent so­lu­tion ad­justed ac­cord­ing to cer­tain spec­i­fi­ca­tions. Many grow­ers have a sys­tem where they ad­just each plant’s nu­tri­ents from a tank for each nutri­ent. It of­fers a lot of con­trol, but is very com­plex and a lot can go wrong. This ne­ces­si­tates rig­or­ous mon­i­tor­ing of the fer­ti­ga­tion pro­gramme, and of­ten many ad­just­ments through the sea­son at dif­fer­ent stages.

Skilled grow­ers can of­ten use their own ex­pe­ri­ence-based gut-feel­ing with good re­sults, but the com­plex­ity and risk re­main the same. This could be sim­pli­fied with a de­mand-driven ap­proach be­cause if nu­tri­ents are matched to the plant’s growth rate, in an ideal com­po­si­tion (see ta­ble), there’s no need for dif­fer­ent tanks for dif­fer­ent plant nu­tri­ents. One com­plete fer­tiliser prod­uct can be sup­plied which sim­pli­fies man­age­ment of the re­cir­cu­lat­ing so­lu­tion it­self, by low­er­ing the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of some nu­tri­ents.

So look for ways to sim­plify pro­duc­tion.

It’s also im­por­tant to un­der­stand the cost-ben­e­fit ra­tio of the in­vest­ment, as seen in its re­turn on in­vest­ment (ROI).

Min­imise re­source in­puts

With wa­ter, fer­tiliser, heat­ing, light, en­ergy and plant pro­tec­tion the main aim is to min­imise losses.

En­ergy is a big fac­tor for the light sup­ply, whether it’s boost­ing nat­u­ral light or is the sole source. LEDs are a huge ad­vance­ment, and it pays to be aware of any new prod­ucts.

With fer­tilis­ers all the ap­plied nu­tri­ents should end up in the plant, with­out any losses such as hav­ing to dis­pose of left over re­cir­cu­la­tion so­lu­tion, drainage or leach­ing or nu­tri­ents bound up in the grow­ing me­dia. Any ex­cess con­sump­tion of nu­tri­ents is an­other form of loss and again, a de­mand­driven ap­proach is the best way to achieve this.

Max­imise re­source use ef­fi­ciency

It’s im­por­tant to fully utilise what­ever is

added to the sys­tem. With fer­til­i­sa­tion it’s not only about avoid­ing ex­cess ap­pli­ca­tion, it’s about know­ing how to fully use each nutri­ent. If nu­tri­ents are sup­plied in ideal ra­tios con­stantly through­out the sea­son they’ll al­ways func­tion in syn­ergy, no de­fi­ciency will oc­cur, and each will con­stantly be used for max­i­mum plant growth and de­vel­op­ment. So ques­tion what you want to achieve and what’s needed to do that.

Max­imise yield

If the sys­tem is balanced to grow more with less and in­vest­ment in the sys­tem is stream­lined for max­i­mum pro­duc­tion, max­i­mum yield will fol­low as a re­sult. Don’t be afraid of in­vest­ing in worth­while equip­ment and re­sources, as the cost-ben­e­fit ra­tio of­ten is worth it. Dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween op­ti­mal and max­i­mum yield as some­times the­o­ret­i­cally a higher yield can only be ob­tained at a cost that’s not worth­while.

Max­imise crop qual­ity

In the­ory this is a yield trade-off as re­sources ab­sorbed by the crop are used to cre­ate qual­ity-en­hanc­ing sub­strates such as sug­ars and an­tiox­i­dants and are even al­lo­cated to the fruit. Qual­ity comes nat­u­rally if the re­sources needed are sup­plied in a balanced way through­out the sea­son and if op­ti­mal yield is the tar­get.

Au­to­mate as much as pos­si­ble

This comes with a trade-off that more mon­i­tor­ing may be re­quired and her again the key word is sim­plic­ity.

Make ev­ery­thing sim­ple and cost ef­fec­tive

Re­duced com­plex­ity is al­ways a bonus. It of­ten means less risk, less labour and a more for­giv­ing sys­tem if mis­takes are made. If fer­ti­ga­tion can be man­aged by a sim­ple com­puter pro­gramme that doesn’t need con­stant ad­just­ments that’s worth­while. So is a medium which au­to­mat­i­cally drains if there’s ac­ci­den­tal over-ir­ri­gation. Any­thing that re­duces mon­i­tor­ing and mi­cro-tasks is the goal.

▴ If fer­tiliser is sup­plied fre­quently to match the de­mand of the crop through the sea­son, op­ti­mal growth is sus­tained, pre­vent­ing losses, low­er­ing to­tal fer­tiliser in­puts and costs.

▴ Op­ti­mal nutri­ent sta­tus en­ables max­i­mum growth and so the great­est use of each nutri­ent.

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