Industrial hemp is gaining interest as farmers explore the potential for increased profits from growing hemp varieties used for fiber, seed and cannabidiol, or CBD, oil.
“This crop will have its growing pains through the first couple of years due to so many unknowns, particularly labor costs, market risks and production variables,” said LSU AgCenter economist Michael Deliberto.
Deliberto was among several AgCenter experts who spoke on hemp production at the Louisiana Forage and Grassland Council annual conference Dec. 6 at the AgCenter DeWitt Livestock Facility near Alexandria.
Acreage expansion in the U.S. is currently driven by the interest and potential profit of CBD oil; however, CBD prices have come down in recent months because of increased supply and lack of processing facilities, Deliberto said.
“This highlights one of the many risks associated with hemp production,” he said.
Other risk factors that may reduce the attractiveness of hemp production include labor and chemical variables that are currently unknown, regulatory expenses that vary according to end use and general uncertainty regarding the direction of the hemp market.
Fiber production is one end use that offers the best long-range sustainability, Deliberto said, as a fast-growing market is developing for use in various industrial manufacturing applications.
CBD oil is the most expensive end use of the crop when compared to fiber and seed, largely because of greater production costs per acre attributed to fertilization, irrigation and transplanting, he said.
AgCenter plant pathologist Raj Singh said industrial hemp production concerns mirror most other Louisiana crops that are influenced by the state’s hot, humid environment and long growing season.
“This is a susceptible crop, and we have several important pests and pathogens in Louisiana that plague hemp production in other states,” he said. “Management is the key, not control, so it is very important to consider the economic threshold to reduce economic loss.”
Restrictions on the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides along with a lack of seed certification in the U.S. are other issues producers should consider before moving forward with industrial hemp production, Singh said.
Singh urged growers to use AgCenter diagnostic services to identify crop pest and disease issues and reminded them to consult their local AgCenter agent for assistance in transporting plant samples to the lab.
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“You can’t just put hemp plants in your car and drive to Baton Rouge,” he said, adding that producers must obtain a permit to move hemp plants for diagnostic purposes.
More information on industrial hemp production is available on the AgCenter website.
Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry seed program director Lester Cannon said hemp is a unique plant, and challenges in seed acquisition and some regulatory hurdles lie ahead. But the state’s regulatory program is expected to be in place by February 2020.
Regulatory information is available on the LDAF website.
Grower experiences with Sunn hemp provided producers firsthand insight on what could prove to be a viable forage alternative for late summer-early fall grazing.
Sunn hemp is a nitrogen-fixing legume used for fodder and as a cover crop. It is a different plant species unrelated to industrial hemp.
It is not ideal for seed production in Louisiana because of climate and pollinator issues. But as a summer annual legume, Sunn hemp is drought tolerant and can provide nutrition for grazing cattle until the first frost, said AgCenter ruminant nutritionist Guillermo Scaglia.
Sunn hemp grows best in sandy, well-drained soil, and plants should not be grazed shorter than 12 inches to prevent killing the plant, he said.
“It would be another effective component, without a doubt,” said cattle and forage producer Cooper Hurst. “It provides a lot of cattle feed, and it would be wonderful because we do not have a summer legume that is a prolific nitrogen fixer.”