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What is crop steering - a beginners guide

Lucy Starley
December 8, 2023
7 min read
Indoor grown curly lettuce
Indoor grown curly lettuce
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At its simplest, crop steering is the strategic control of plant growth. It's the meticulous manipulation of a plant's environment to steer its growth towards more leaves and stems or more flowers and fruits. 

This involves carefully controlling variables such as light, water, and nutrients to influence the plant's growth phase - pushing it towards either vegetative or generative growth as desired.

Every grower steers their crop even if they are not aware they are doing so. 

Unlocking plant potential

If you're immersed in the world of indoor farming or hydroponics, you might have heard whispers of a technique so effective it's like having a growth accelerator for your plants. 

Crop steering might sound like a buzzword, but it's a horticultural revolution in the making. 

It’s a concept that might seem complex at first. But by the end of our introduction to crop steering, you'll know more about how it can boost your yields and help you achieve exceptional growth.

Welcome to the cutting-edge world of indoor growing, where the concept of crop steering has emerged as a game-changer. If you've yet to encounter this term, prepare for an enlightening journey that will transform your approach to plant care. 

Vegetative vs generative steering - the key phases

Understanding the difference between these two phases is critical. 

Vegetative growth

This is the growth stage when the plant focuses on producing more leaves and stems, expanding its size and reach. This phase is crucial for establishing a solid foundation for the plant.

Generative growth

The generative phase or flowering stage directs the plant’s efforts towards flowering and fruit production - the payoff for many growers. 

Striking the right balance between these two phases is the heart of crop steering.

Why Should Growers Use Crop Steering?

The goal of crop steering is efficiency. It's all about precision and control. 

In traditional farming, plants are left to the whims of nature. Uncontrollable variables like weather and season influence plant growth. 

But growing indoors and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) has flipped the script, providing growers with the dials and switches to control these variables. 

This level of control is at the heart of why crop steering is not just innovative but necessary for competitive and efficient cultivation. Rather than allowing a plant to divide its energies haphazardly, crop steering targets growth for higher yields, better quality, and often faster production cycles. 

It's about optimising the grow room environment to match your crop's natural life cycles but with the grower in the driver's seat. By fine-tuning environmental factors, growers can maximise the plant's genetic potential, ensuring each phase of its lifecycle is optimally supported.

Vanilla crop grown using crop steering

What are the benefits of crop steering?

Optimising plant performance

Imagine being able to tell a plant exactly when to grow its leaves and when to bear fruit. That's what crop steering enables. 

By controlling environmental factors, growers can induce stress at just the right moments to enhance plant performance. For instance, slightly stressing a plant by controlling water can increase the number of budding sites, its fruit set and size, directly influencing profitability.

Maximising genetic potential

Every plant has a genetic ceiling, its maximum potential for growth and yield. Crop steering gives you a roadmap to reach that ceiling. 

By understanding the plant’s needs and responding accordingly, growers can push the plant towards its fullest expression. Whether that’s the lushest lettuce leaves or the juiciest tomatoes, steering puts that potential within reach.

Shortening growth cycles

Time is of the essence in commercial cultivation. Crop steering can shorten the vegetative stage by encouraging quicker development, leading to more harvest cycles per year. 

More cycles mean more product, which translates to increased revenue. It’s about finding the sweet spot between speed and health, ensuring that plants don’t just grow fast but also thrive.

Enhancing product quality

Quality often trumps quantity. Crop steering isn’t just about increasing yields; it’s about enhancing the quality of the produce. 

By refining the balance of nutrients and water, the flavour, colour, texture and scent of fruits and flowers can be improved. This is particularly important for premium markets, where quality can significantly impact price.

Conserving resources

CEA already uses fewer resources than traditional agriculture, and crop steering takes efficiency a step further. 

By giving plants precisely what they need when they need it, there’s less waste of water, nutrients, and energy. This not only saves money but also aligns with a more sustainable approach to farming, reducing the operation's environmental footprint.

The advantages of crop steering are clear: maximised yields, optimised plant health, reduced waste, and higher quality produce. 

For growers ready to invest in the necessary technology and learn the nuances of their plants’ language, the rewards can be substantial. Crop steering isn’t just a technique; it’s a strategic approach to modern farming that puts the grower in the driver’s seat.

Seedlings

How does crop steering work?

The methodology of crop steering is founded on the principles of plant physiology, where light, water, and nutrients are the primary levers.

Light: 

Light is a plant's lifeline, providing the energy needed for photosynthesis. By varying the intensity, duration, and spectrum of light, plants can be encouraged to enter either vegetative or generative growth. LED technology has been a boon in this regard, offering unparalleled control over light conditions.

Longer durations of light generally encourage vegetative growth. But it’s not just about quantity; the quality and spectrum of light play roles, too. Adjusting these can signal the plant to switch gears into generative growth.

Water:

Water is the lifeblood of all plants, and its management is a cornerstone of crop steering. 

Vegetative steering often involves keeping the soil or growing medium’s water content consistent to support leaf and stem development. 

Conversely, reducing water availability can stress the plant, signalling it to shift its focus to reproductive growth - flowering or fruiting. That’s generative steering.

Nutrients: 

The composition of nutrients provided to the plant will vary depending on the desired growth phase. Nitrogen, for instance, is emphasised during vegetative steering to support leaf and stem growth. 

As we pivot to generative steering, the emphasis shifts to phosphorus and potassium to facilitate flower and fruit production.

Botanicals grown under LEDs using crop steering

The science behind crop steering - in brief

Plants are responsive organisms. They naturally adapt their growth patterns in response to environmental signals - a survival mechanism developed over millennia. 

Crop steering takes advantage of this adaptability. By creating conditions favouring one type of growth over another, we’re speaking directly to the plants in a language they understand.

Crop Steering isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy

No two grow cycles or plant strains are the same. Successful crop steering involves closely observing your plants and responding appropriately. It’s a dynamic process.

It requires an attentive grower to monitor, analyse, and respond to the individual needs of each plant. This ongoing process demands a combination of technical knowledge and an intuitive understanding of plant behaviour.

Crop steering in practice

Take, for example, the journey of a cucumber plant in a hydroponic system. Early in its life, the grower steers it towards vegetative growth with ample light and nutrients to develop a sturdy vine. 

As the plant matures, the grower shifts to generative steering, reducing nitrogen in favour of potassium and phosphorus and tweaking the light to encourage the plant to flower and set fruit.

The Grow Sensor and app.

The tools you’ll need for success

Accurate sensors and meters for vapour pressure deficit VPD, light intensity, soil moisture, electrical conductivity EC, and nutrient levels at the root zone are non-negotiable. 

These tools provide the data on your environmental conditions that inform your decisions, allowing for precision in your steering efforts.

The highly detailed environmental data provided by the Grow Sensor and the accompanying soil probe will give you all the actionable insights you’ll need to crop steer your grow to success.

Crop steering for sustainability

Crop steering isn't just about pursuing higher yields. It's a pathway to sustainability. By fine-tuning your inputs to exactly what your plants need, you reduce waste and increase resource use efficiency.

Navigating the challenges

Crop steering isn't without its challenges. Variations in plant varieties, individual responses to conditions, and the complexity of environmental control all add layers of difficulty. It requires a commitment to continuous learning and adaptation.

Crop steering for your indoor grow

With advancements in technology, crop steering is becoming increasingly sophisticated. 

Automated systems can now adjust conditions in real time based on data collected from sensors like ours. This makes precise crop steering more accessible than ever - even to small-scale growers.

Takeaways:

Crop steering isn't confined to large-scale operations. Regardless of your scale, from hobbyist to commercial grower, these principles apply.

Now that you understand crop steering at a top level and how it can transform your growing operations, it's time to take action. 

Begin by assessing your current setup and considering how you can implement these strategies. Remember, crop steering is not just a set of actions but a mindset of attentive and responsive growing.

Whether you’re a hobbyist with a single grow tent or a commercial producer overseeing many grow rooms, crop steering can elevate your horticultural practice. 

Embrace the learning curve, apply the techniques thoughtfully, and witness how responsive your plants can be. Your path to horticultural excellence starts with steering your crops to success.

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Lucy Starley
December 8, 2023
7 min read

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