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Can Intercanopy Lighting Improve Cannabis Yield and Quality?

Aug 03, 2023

Commercial cannabis growers face an ever-evolving market and constant uncertainty. As a result, we must continually challenge our own thinking and build upon what we think we already know about growing. Across the industry, a primary objective is to reduce cost per pound while increasing quality and yield, to generate more revenue per square foot, per turn and per year. But how we pursue that goal will be essential to survival and success.

During the past few years, the cannabis industry has undergone a tremendous transformation. The introduction of legalization in many states, the rise of industrial cultivation and commercialization has led to substantial changes in the legacy cannabis community. In the past, cannabis activists pushed for information sharing regarding cultivation practices, but growers are hesitant with the commercialization of cannabis and everyone thinking they have hit the goldmine with a special secret sauce.

Nowadays, there is still a lack of solid commercial data from growers about successful, cost-effective and progressive cultivation practices that could help all cultivators as a group. With this in mind, it is essential to explore ways to build awareness and encourage the sharing of scientifically valid and commercially proven information within the cannabis community and industry to further advance the market as a whole. At Statehouse, a California-focused, vertically integrated cannabis company, we are taking an active approach in keeping the spirit of information sharing alive, especially among the legacy cannabis community, concerning the evolution of cannabis production practices. We hope you’ll join us.

With that said, we’d like to offer an innovative approach to optimizing cannabis yields by improving photon conversion efficiency while potentially reducing total energy use required per gram of biomass produced.

Resource Efficiency

Resource efficiency plays a crucial role in managing a cultivation facility from an environmental perspective, as it ensures the responsible use of water, energy and materials while minimizing waste and environmental impact. By integrating these practices, cultivation facilities can contribute to environmental conservation, protect natural resources and promote sustainable agricultural practices. The primary drivers to address resource efficiency are:

Two well-known adages are fitting here: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure" and “Don’t be lazy in learning.” Keeping the simplicity, relevance and importance of these two quotes in mind can help as we examine light-related metrics and look at new opportunities to maximize yields in cannabis flower production systems.

The Optimal Daily Light Integral (DLI)

In partnership with the American Flower Endowment, Dr. Jim Faust and Dr. Joanne Logan (from Clemson University and University of Tennessee, respectively) created interactive Daily Light Integral (DLI) maps and explained DLI this way: “Daily Light Integral represents the total photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) accumulated over one day (24 hours). Since plants are accumulators of solar radiation, this measurement is extremely useful when describing solar radiation as it affects plant growth. Daily Light Integral has become a familiar measurement for plant scientists and commercial growers.”

PPFD (photosynthetic photon flux density) is light intensity or instantaneous light measured in micromoles per square meter per second (μmol/m2/s). In contrast, DLI is a cumulative measure, a function of both light intensity and duration, measured as moles per square meter per day (mol/m2/day).

It’s important to note that natural DLI is tied not only to the sun’s seasonal intensity but also to your natural day length as it changes throughout the year. Keep in mind this addition or loss of light throughout the year directly impacts photosynthesis and yields as discussed earlier. When growing in a greenhouse, this is especially critical to understand.

Research out of Utah State University’s Crop Physiology Laboratory (note: StateHouse is a funding partner for the USU Lab) shows that cannabis can be continually productive up to DLIs as high as 70 and potentially above. However, DLIs in the United States do not reach this level naturally, even during peak summer, and most indoor growers shoot for between 51 and 55 moles per day or approximately 1,200 umol/m2/s.

RELATED: Far-Red Research

As growers, our goals are not always aligned with mother nature. To achieve the highest yields possible year-round, growing indoors or in a greenhouse with supplemental artificial lighting is necessary to achieve those DLIs.

The graphics below, created by Drs. Faust and Logan, reflect the variation in DLI based on U.S. geography and seasons. January is on the top, and July is below. The brightest reds on the July map represent DLIs of 55 to 65, while the pinks and purple on the winter map correspond to 5 to 15 mol/m2/day. Depending on your location, your natural DLI can change by 40% to 65% throughout the year — having a significant impact on cultivation performance.

U.S. DLI Levels, January. Both maps based on solar radiation data from 1998 to 2012. Screenshot of maps courtesy of American Floral Endowment. The interactive map can be found here:

U.S. DLI Levels, July.

StateHouse’s cultivation facility in Salinas, Calif., is in a region with some of the highest DLIs in the United States, but the change between summer and winter is significant. The natural DLI outside the greenhouse changes by 60% throughout the year, as shown in the graph below. Note the difference between natural DLI and the red line at 60 mol/m2/day. (At StateHouse, we use 60 moles as a practical, cost-effective target for optimization of yields.) This graph clearly demonstrates how much opportunity there is if we improve light capture and utilization.

Let’s say you’re a commercial greenhouse grower growing under glassin a tall Venlo greenhouse. When adding supplemental LED top lighting to optimize your grow, there are many considerations—including fixture form factor, fixture efficiency and spectra. But focusing on DLI as a function of light intensity , you want to make sure your crop never receives a DLI less than 30 mol/m2/day at any given time of the year—not including your natural ambient light conditions. This means you would need to outfit your greenhouse with no less than 700 μmol/m2/s of supplemental LED top lighting when growing under a flowering photoperiod (approximately 12-hour day length).

Photon Conversion Efficiency (PCE)

Photon conversion efficiency is another important parameter to consider and measure when trying to maximize yield with light, as it directly affects the efficiency of a growing system system and therefore should be considered a new key cultivation performance indicator/metric. Photon conversion efficiency (PCE) reflects the efficiency with which light energy is converted into biomass. More specifically, it’s the ratio of the number of photons absorbed to the number of photons converted into useful energy.

A higher PCE means that more of your light energy is producing useful energy, which leads to higher overall system efficiency and yield. In photosynthetic systems, a higher PCE means more of the absorbed photons are being utilized to drive the photosynthetic process. This results in a higher rate of biomass production from the same amount of light energy.

When discussing cannabis flower production or biomass yield in general, the unit of measure for PCE is grams per mole (g/mole) of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) light. You can apply this to a single square foot, cycle or year (g/mole/ft2/cycle). To maximize yield with light, it is important to design photosynthetic systems that have high photon conversion efficiency. This can be achieved by optimizing the system's materials, structure, light design, defoliation techniques, crop density and other operating conditions.

Currently, most growers only apply lighting from above the crop—and most commercial lighting is designed for that application. Obviously, this approach is due to plants being naturally adapted to capture light from the sun. But upper leaves are not the only surfaces that can drive photosynthesis. Again, when thinking about crop production systems, our goals as growers are not always the same as mother nature.

Leaf Area Index (LAI)

Leaf Area Index (LAI) is a key metric used in many fields, including ecology, agriculture, forestry and climate science, to provide valuable information about plant canopy structure, plant growth and ecosystem functioning. For cannabis growers, LAI is a critical tool in optimizing photon capture during production.

Typically expressed as a ratio, LAI quantifies the amount of foliage or leaf surface area present in a defined area. More specifically, LAI is the ratio of total leaf surface area—including both the upper (adaxial) and lower (abaxial) surfaces of leaves—to the ground (or bench) surface area.

Whether they know it or not, cannabis growers use this metric when filling in their canopy space during flowering. But there are many different approaches to maximizing canopy area. Although different approaches may achieve the same “total” yield result, they come with extremely different costs, system efficiencies gained or lost, and varying quality results.

For example, one way to fill in your growing area is to place more plants at it. Many assume you can increase yields easily by adding more plants. However, in some systems, labor cost has a 1 to 1 relationship with plant count, along with other direct costs, like materials (pots, substrate, fertilizer, water etc.). More plants can require more handling; more defoliation contributes to additional labor and other costs. More plants also mean additional total wet weight going into drying, so a grower must remove more water from non-flower biomass. This poses many challenges, especially when growers have fixed and limited drying space, limited water removal capacity and limited dry time.

From an efficient drying and quality-ensuring perspective, growers can try to implement strategies that reduce total wet weight being introduced into drying at one time, enabling more precise control over the drying process. There are operators with systems as high as 1 plant per 1 square foot (1p/ft2) with the same yield as 1 plant per 3 square feet (.3p/ft2) — with the exact same crop time and schedule, but with vastly different finished flower quality, biomass category ratios, PCEs and costs per pound. In other words, less, i.e., fewer plants, is more, and more efficient.

As growers understand and appreciate Daily Light Integral, Photon Conversion Efficiency and Leaf Area Index, the bigger question becomes how we can optimize these metrics to maximize production, while also minimizing cost per pound. This is where FDC2 strategies and technologies, like those that follow here, come into play.

Light Diffusion

In lighting, diffusion refers to the process of scattering or softening light rays to reduce harsh shadows and create a more even and uniform distribution of light. In a greenhouse, you are subject to shading and, as the sun rises and sets, your growing area receives varying amounts of light throughout the day. By diffusing the light, as shown in the figures courtesy of Yuhua Glass below, your crop/growing area can receive more consistent light levels throughout the day while possibly accumulating more total light (DLI) during a single day.

Light diffusion also can help with temperature/heat management issues caused when wasted light concentrates on non-plant surfaces and contributes to radiant heat levels. With that said, light diffusion is also why most indoor grow rooms are white. Flat white can reflect and diffuse up to 85% of light, ensuring the same benefits seen when growers deploy proper light diffusion strategies in a greenhouse. Keep in mind the same is not true for gloss white, which can reduce uniform light diffusion compared to flat white by up to 50%. These small details matter.

While this may sound new to some growers, the proven strategy of maximizing diffusion and increasing light accumulation in plants in a single day — increasing single-day DLIs — has been integrated into traditional greenhouse production system designs for more than a decade. Understanding the benefits of diffusion, we can appreciate the possibilities when plants are able to absorb photons from all angles, not just from above. Not necessarily how mother nature intended.

Before detailing the potential of non-traditional lighting in cannabis production, I want to touch again on photosynthesis and the role of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll, the pigment that gives plants their green color, is present in the chloroplasts of plants, algae and some bacteria. It is essential for photosynthesis. In fact, the importance of chlorophyll in photosynthesis cannot be overstated.

Chlorophyll is the molecule responsible for capturing light energy and transferring it to other molecules in the photosynthetic pathway. Without chlorophyll, plants and other photosynthetic organisms would not be able to produce the energy they need to survive nor convert that energy into biomass.

Knowing the importance of the role of chlorophyll in photosynthesis and its direct impact on plant growth/biomass production, it’s also critical to acknowledge that cannabis flowers are green. Yes, photosynthesis in fruits and flowers is also significant, not just leaves; green tomatoes are just one example. This principle may be crucial to maximizing your PCE during cannabis flower production.

It's time to now ask the question: Would applying light directly to all flowers on a single plant (throughout the whole vertical and horizontal profile) increase photon capture, therefore increasing photosynthesis , resulting in increased PCE and greater yields? Here at StateHouse, we hypothesize that it would.

Dr. Bruce Bugbee at Utah State University’s Crop Physiology Laboratory offers additional support for this idea, including research by USU Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Research Assistant Mitchell Westmoreland.

RELATED: Light Intensity Benefits and Boundaries

“Cannabis flower photosynthesis is proportional to chlorophyll and surface area of the flowers. Mitch has data indicating that the flowers contribute up to 30% of the total photosynthesis at harvest. This is based on canopy photosynthetic measurements after removal of the leaves,” Bugbee says. Consider that again: Flowers contribute up to 30% of the total photosynthesis at harvest.

To date, much of the research exploring more direct application of light to cannabis flowers, central to Flower Direct Cannabis Cultivation, has focused on supplementing top lights with inter-canopy lighting (ICL), sometimes called intra-canopy lighting, which places supplemental lighting into the canopy itself. Bugbee’s lab is not alone in acknowledging ICL’s potential for improving plant growth and yield.

Many other universities have also studied this promising lighting technique, including the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center; Wageningen University & Research (Netherlands); University of California, Davis, Department of Plant Sciences; Michigan State University’s Department of Horticulture; and Purdue University’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. The latter three have also developed numerous lighting systems now being used in commercial greenhouse operations.

Based on StateHouse’s own robust internal experiments and data from related research, the company has initiated a project, partnering with the Cannabis Research Coalition, other global growers and Grow Light Design (GLD) to further explore and potentially validate FDC2 lighting principles through the application of a very specialized form factor of lighting fixture designed specifically for cannabis production.

Below are pictures of previous trials run in our commercial greenhouses in Salinas, Calif., as well as a picture of the fixtures in our indoor R&D growth chambers in Greenfield, Calif., as part of the Intercanopy Lighting Validation Group (ICLVG) project.

The specialized fixtures have two levels and surround the crop while also sitting on the bench, enabling trellis connection and bracing of the plants. These fixtures create a three-dimensional cube around the crop.

As the crop grows, a grower can tweak the placement and direction of the light to channel directly on the flowers of the crop.

Intercanopy lighting research at StateHouse's cultivation facility. Photos courtesy of Travis Higginbotham

The objective of the study is to determine the impact of redistributing the same DLI (same amount of energy used) between top lighting alone vs. the combined application of top lighting plus the surround canopy fixture on cannabis crop biomass yield, biomass category ratio and finished flower quality.

The study partners will run the exact same trial in all of their different R&D systems, using fixtures provided by GLD. The research began June 5, 2023, and will run through Sept. 4, 2023. Trial parameters and results will be shared when the final analysis is complete.

Travis Higginbotham is a commercial cultivation specialist and business owner with close to a decade of experience in commercial horticulture. As Vice President of Cultivation for StateHouse, he oversees a 230,000-square-foot cannabis greenhouse operation, running all cultivation, postharvest and bulk sales. His extensive background includes positions as VP of Sales and Business Development at The Hemp Mine, Direct of Research and Development for Battlefield Farms, and Global Director of Horticulture Service for Fluence Bioengineering. In addition, he is the co-inventor of two smart farming patents focused on managing Photoperiod and Light Acclimation, respectively. He holds a BS in Horticulture from Clemson University and an MS in Horticulture from Virginia Tech University.

Photosynthesis FundamentalsResource EfficiencyKey Metrics for Optimizing FDC2The Optimal Daily Light Integral (DLI)RELATED: Far-Red ResearchU.S. DLI Levels, January. Both maps based on solar radiation data from 1998 to 2012. Screenshot of maps courtesy of American Floral Endowment. The interactive map can be found here: U.S. DLI Levels, July.Photon Conversion Efficiency (PCE)Leaf Area Index (LAI)Flower Direct Cannabis Cultivation StrategiesLight DiffusionMoving Beyond Top LightingRELATED: Light Intensity Benefits and BoundariesUpcoming Project: Intercanopy Lighting Validation Group (ICLVG)