The Texas Senate recently passed SB 339, which would have ended the state’s ban on industrial hemp production. The bill, which would have allowed farmers to grow hemp for research and development purposes, was killed by a House committee, which cited the potential threat of being prosecuted by the federal government.

Industrial hemp (plant) is a variant of the cannabis (plant) that has been grown for many years and is used for food, fiber, oil, medicine and more. In the United States of America (USA), industrial hemp is largely grown (or planted) in states where the cannabis (plant) is illegal. Industrial hemp is a unique part of the cannabis (plant) family, which means it is only technically cannabis (plant) in its entirety, as it cannot be used to make marijuana (weed).

With the legalization of industrial hemp in Texas, rapid growth in acreage was expected, but the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service says there are many problems in the state where it is a lucrative commodity.

Growing cannabis in Texas is a challenge as scientists and industry search for varieties and management methods suitable for the state’s growing conditions. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter).

The state had no guidelines for those growing hemp – for CBD, fiber or grain production – until the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension stepped in after the Texas Legislature approved hemp production by licensed operators in late 2019, said Kelvin Trostle, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist and state hemp specialist, Lubbock.

Hemp plants are regulated by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) and tested for the psychoactive property THC. Any cannabis plant with a THC content of more than 0.3 percent can be seized and destroyed. Therefore, growers should be extremely careful not to allow a CBD, fiber or grain crop to mature beyond this limit.

According to Trostle, the hysteria has subsided since the legalization of cannabis due to dramatic changes in the market and a research-based reality check about the challenges and risks of growing the plant in the Texas climate.

He said AgriLife Extension’s initial information on varieties suitable for different production and marketing models has saved potential producers millions of dollars in losses over the past two years.

As an alternative culture, the cannabis industry in Texas is still in its infancy, Trostle said. But we’re still trying to figure out which varieties can adapt to help farmers avoid headaches.

In early 2019, economic projections of $40,000 profit per acre led to a surge of interest in cannabis production for medical CBD applications. But by the end of 2019, the CBD market was saturated with producers based in other states, and prices fell.

About 132,000 acres of cannabis were harvested in the U.S. this year, and most of the crop was never processed. In 2020, about 65,000 acres were harvested and by 2021, only 40,000 acres in more than 40 states will be able to meet the demand for CBD.

It doesn’t take many acres of land to produce CBD as a finished product, Trostle said. About 25 acres yielding an average crop can fill 1 million vials, containing about 1 gram of CBD.

By 2020, the TDA estimates that 2 078 acres of the 5 000 acres allowed for industrial hemp will have been planted.

Fiber could be the future of Texas hemp

Fiber can be a viable option for cannabis production in Texas, but more research needs to be done to determine the right varieties and cultivation methods to make it profitable, Trostle said. Reducing the cost of seed will also help.

In AgriLife Extension’s 2020 trials across the state, there were several poor results and multiple failures due to late planting, poorly adapted varieties, poor seed quality and low germination rates, and some fields suffered from stresses such as pests, heat and drought. Weed control was also a big problem in the hemp fields.

Trostle said hemp may not be viable in Texas conditions. He said crops, especially those for fiber and grain production, should be grown in northern climates at or above the north line of the 40th parallel – roughly where Nebraska and Kansas intersect – thrive best.

The problem we are trying to solve with varieties for fiber and grain production is that most varieties are adapted to more northern latitudes – Canada, Ukraine, Poland, France – and are very sensitive to photoperiod, he said. They don’t need heat and sun like cotton, but longer summer days to grow and then longer nights to reproduce. Plant propagation begins too early in the south.

Trostle said some of the experimental plants entered the reproductive phase at 6-7 inches, while under suitable conditions they would have reached a height of 6-7 feet before they began to flower. Chinese varieties are promising, but there are still many questions and issues to be resolved before Texas A&M AgriLife experts can recommend management strategies that can make cannabis permanently profitable.

Improved seed sources would greatly reduce production costs, Trostle said. Growers can pay $1,200 to $3,500 per acre for some CBD varieties, especially if they only buy female seeds, since female plants produce CBD.

By comparison, corn seed can cost $75 to $100 per acre, while sorghum seed costs just $8 per acre, Trostle said.

Some of the seeds we are looking at, especially from China, Australia and Italy, are promising, but until they are produced here in the U.S. and available at much lower prices, Texas will have a hard time becoming a major player in the fiber industry, he said.

Hemp also has potential as a grain plant from which oil is extracted from seeds such as rapeseed, soya beans and sunflowers – in the form of highly nutritious hemp hearts or as a meal in combination with other cereals for animal feed.

The industry faces similar challenges, however, and Trostle said not enough testing has been done with cannabis biomass as animal feed.

Apart from the problems associated with the production of hemp in fiber or grain form, there are no established processing plants or firm buyers willing to buy the fiber or grain produced in Texas. Trostle said this reality has dampened growers’ enthusiasm for cannabis during dozens of AgriLife Extension presentations over the past two years across the state.

Once manufacturers got past the hype, they started looking at the economics and realized it wasn’t the best option for them, at least not at this time, he said.

Texas hemp requires time, research and investment

Trostle said there are successful CBD hemp producers in Texas, including small organic companies that grow hemp for CBD and process it into products they sell directly to consumers under their own brands. They are an exception and are managed by producers with advanced knowledge of the plant.

There are very few growers who grow only because the cost of cultivation is only 1 to 2 percent of the retail cost, which is very low compared to other crops, he said. Those that are successful are vertically integrated and likely to produce organic products and ultimately make more money.

In the future, Trostle said, the industry will likely shift from small, manual production to mechanized, profitable operations. However, this requires lower production costs and a stable market for Texas cannabis.

Trostle said scientists from AgriLife Research and specialists from AgriLife Extension continue to work on a variety of projects in the areas of variety evaluation, plant breeding and end-use potential, and that Texas cannabis organizations are looking for a viable future for the plant.

But as initial interest in cannabis waned, so did research funding, Trostle said. Some Texas A&M AgriLife projects are nearing completion, while others were self-funded research driven by scientists’ curiosity about plants.

The fantasy of growing cannabis and getting tens of thousands of dollars per acre is behind us, and we are now looking at how to make cannabis a viable option for farmers, Trostle said. I think a lot of people are happy that Texas A&M AgriLife is involved and brings credible science, but they don’t always like to hear what we say about the facts we report. I think there is a future for industrial hemp in Texas, but it will take time, effort and investment.

TheAgriLife Extension district reporters prepared the following summary:.

CENTRAL

Temperatures were warmer, more humid and there was no precipitation. Some crops needed rain, but it was probably too late to help improve corn. The corn matured quickly and especially at the dent stage. The second cut of forage grass has been baled and the yield looks good. Wheat was harvested, but the quality and yield were disappointing. The sorghum was excellent and suffered little from pests, but farmers were cautious about pest pressure. The vigor of cotton increased as the temperature and dryness of the soil increased. Most of the cotton was in bloom and soil spraying was still used to protect the young spikelets from thrips and fleas.

ROLLING PLANES

Further rainfall, 2 to 8 inches in some areas, has further delayed cotton planting and wheat harvest. The remaining wheat seemed sparse and the cotton acreage was limited. Cotton planting started well, but some wet fields looked poor or unsatisfactory. Wheat growers reported below-average yields of 35-40 bushels per acre. The corn looked decent in some places and marbled in others. Sorghum millet stand was also uneven, with some fields in both the pre-crop and post-crop phases. Some fields and meadows were flooded. The peanuts grew well. Rain delayed the hay harvest, but producers were still able to bale the cut grass. The Bermuda grass has begun to bloom. The cut hayfields have been fertilized and the second cut should be of good quality and appear in the sunshine soon. The grass began to grow and the fields of Sudan looked good. The cattle looked good, with good grazing. The calves and breeding animals showed good results.

COASTAL BEND

Wet conditions persisted, with daily rains in many areas largely interrupting agricultural activities. Standing water was a problem in some places. The rains have been good for the ponds and cattle grazing. Several farmers were able to apply fungicides for soybeans and herbicides for cotton in time. Cotton looked like an average season. The grain harvest looks good. Some sorghum has been harvested. The corn was maturing, and some cob growth was reported. Rice was on his way out, looking good. The hayfields were ready for harvest and some were replanted for the second cut. Cattle breeding went well.

EST

Temperatures were moderate for the month of July. Rain fell for a short time in most of the county. In many counties, producers have been harvesting hay between rains. The meadows and fields were good. The subsoil and topsoil were adequate. Watermelons, peas, corn, beans, tomatoes and other vegetables were harvested. The condition of the cattle ranged from fair to good. Fly populations continued to increase. The number of armyworms and Bermuda stem larvae has increased. The activity of wild boar has also increased.

SOUTHERN LEVELS

In the past 10 days, the county has received 8 to 15 inches of precipitation and temperatures reached the 80s. The fields were wet. Reservoirs flooded and many culverts were breached. Deaths of horses and livestock due to flooding have been reported. Most cotton grew well, but some fields were in water. The playa’s and terraces were full. According to the reconnaissance, the cotton averaged 7.5 total knots with a range of 2 to 10 knots. According to current mapping data, flowering began around the 22nd. July is expected. Peanut did very well. Most fields were in full bloom and about to be planted. Grain corn ranges from just planted to cob. The cattle were in good condition.

PANHANDLE

The northern and central parts of the region reported insufficient or sufficient soil moisture, while the southern areas reported sufficient soil moisture. Heavy rains fell in most southern districts of the country, but hail was also recorded. Heavy rains have washed away some of the crops in some areas. The meadows and pastures were good to very good. The winter wheat and oat harvest has continued. Corn and soybeans were in good to excellent condition, and sorghum and cotton were in good to satisfactory condition. The peanuts were in good shape. The grass has grown and the gardeners have been battling the weeds. The cattle were given extra feed.

NORTH

The moisture content of the topsoil was low or adequate. Temperatures rose and nearly 0.75 inches of rain fell. The hay producers are not much affected by the rain. The pastures were in good condition and the crops continued to grow in good weather. In Hunt County, the latest wheat crop has been delayed due to wet fields. After wheat, producers grew soybeans and sorghum. The cattle have plenty of pasture. A report has been received on army worms.

FAR WEST

Temperatures dropped, with daily highs between 70 and 90 degrees. Monsoon rains have returned to the region with total rainfall of up to 10 cm, with heavier rainfall at higher elevations. Flooding is a problem because of the dry, compacted soil with little vegetation to slow runoff. The streams were flowing again for the first time in years and the condition of the meadows was already improving. Despite the rain, conditions remained dry. Producers continued to irrigate cotton and pecan crops and feed livestock and wildlife.

WEST CENTRAL PART

Conditions were hot, humid and dry and all areas needed rain. Producers were busy harvesting wheat, mowing and baling hay, and irrigating forage where possible. The recent rains have helped the meadows and pastures considerably. Some producers finished the wheat harvest with good yields, but many were disappointed with 20 bushels per acre on dry fields and 30 bushels per acre on some irrigated fields. Cotton planting has continued and the area is off to a good start. The number of grasshoppers, biting worms and other harmful insects has increased. The cattle looked good. Prices for beef cattle increased $3 to $5 per cwt and those for beef cows decreased $2 to $4 per cwt. On some farms, the culling of livestock continued. Fire bans remained in place in many provinces. Walnut caterpillars have been a problem for pecan growers. The sorghum fields were in the flowering and wilting phase.

SOUTH EAST

Some areas have received rain, others are expected. Some areas experienced heavy rainfall, resulting in saturated fields and meadows. Rice moved closer and closer to the exit. In Grimes County, heavy rains have resulted in highly saturated pastures. Grassland and pasture scores ranged from very poor to excellent, with good scores being the most common. Soil moisture ranged from very low to excessive, with adequate levels being the most common.

SOUTHWEST

There was heavy rainfall throughout the county. The condition of pastures and grasslands has improved in areas where rainfall has occurred. Haymaking continued as long as conditions allowed. The corn is still ripening and there are only a few weeks left until the harvest. Guadalupe County reports that the sorghum is discoloring and looking good. Caldwell County reported stable markets for cattle, sheep and goats. The condition of the livestock was fair to good and that of the wildlife was good. Gillespie County has reported a large number of deer sightings.

SOUTH

The warm weather persisted across the country with heavy rainfall in most districts. Atascosa and LaSalle counties received up to 1.5 inches of rain and Live Oak County received 2 to 7 inches. Other counties received a half to an inch of rain. Rains disrupted fieldwork in the wettest areas. Early planted peanuts have germinated. The corn was dented and the sorghum was coloring and giving seeds. Grain sorghum matured quickly and some producers were already harvesting. Live Oak County reported the beginning of the sorghum harvest. The cotton fields were in full bloom, and spikes had been planted in the early planted fields. Rain should improve cotton yields. The condition of pastures and grazing lands varies from poor to good and has improved in areas where rainfall has occurred. Very little food was given to the cattle. Planting of forage crops, including sorghum and sunflowers, continued. Mesquite beans fell and provided high quality nutrients for livestock and wildlife. The condition of cattle has continued to improve. The stocks have been replenished. Beef prices rose sharply last month after the rains and sales volumes fell. The producers have been busy haying. The bald eagles molted and the quail nested and brooded. The outlook for wildlife was good. The watermelons and cantaloupes were still bearing fruit. The sesame fields looked good. The citrus remained in poor or defective condition.

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