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Cannabis Breeding Q&A with John Hunt and the GemmaCert Pro

By John Hunt
Cannabis Breeding Q&A with John Hunt and the GemmaCert Pro
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We grilled our longtime friend and Mile-High colleague John Hunt on some of the finer points of cannabis breeding and here is what he had to say.

How do can you best describe how the breeding process works in steps?

The breeding process has a couple of starting points…..the first is the selection of the breeding stock (i.e. the Male and Female plants). This happens well before you want to pollinate anything. If you have a stable Female that contains attributes you like (high yield, terpene profile, short maturity rate, long maturity rate, height, etc), the Female plant has things that you would like to pass on to the offspring.

The same holds true with the Male plant (which is a harder selection process due to not seeing any buds/flowers from it).

The Male can also have attributes that you enjoy also (terpene profile, hearty growth, fast growth, short stature, or resilience to any issues).

Once you have genetics (Male plant/s and Female plant/s) that you want to breed, you have already started the breeding process through selection.

The pollination of those plants is the second step to making seeds.

There are many ways and strategies to pollinate the Female plant. To ensure that you have a Male plant that pollinates one or more Female plants, you use only one Male plant per project (set of plants to pollinate). For example,  one Orange Mints Male to a full crop of Female plants (same genetic or mixed genetics).

This cross of one Male plant to more than one Female genetic plant is how many breeders come out with a “line” of crosses – this increases the number of crosses made from one crop instead of breeding the Male to a large crop of only one cultivar.

Some say to put the Male plant with the Female plants from Day 1 of the Flowering Cycle. Others say to put the Male into flower a week later than the Females. Some will flower the Male on its own, collect the pollen in a bag, and use a cotton swab to pollinate certain buds on the Female plant while it is in flower. Some will take the bag of pollen and hold it over a branch to pollinate one entire branch of a Female plant.

Over the years, many different strategies have been used to pollinate a Female plant with Male pollen and all of them have their pros and cons.

I put the Male plant into flower on Day 6 with the Females, once the Male plant starts to drop its pollen, it will drop enough pollen to cover the entire room with proper air movement.

I also take the Female plants to full maturity to ensure the seeds have fully developed. You want to make sure the seeds are going to germinate quickly and be a stable plant, so full maturity of the Mother plant is something I like to do to add to those results. After the Male plant has pollinated the room his life is now over and you can remove him from the flower room and harvest/cut him down.

You now have pollinated Female plants with seeds developing inside the buds.

Take those plants to full maturity, cut them and dry them (not like buds but dry them completely out by hanging upside down). Once you have the Female plants completely dry, the fun part begins… seed separation.

I use an Easy Seed to separate the seeds from the plant matter but there are many devices out there that speed up the seed separation process. I start by rubbing the Female plant branches between my hands to break down the plant matter and remove the seeds from the husk.

Then I take the plant material and run it through the Easy Seed 3-4 times to separate the seeds and plant material. Finally, while packaging the seeds, I push my fingers over the seeds on a hard surface (a table works fine) to see if any seeds will crack or break, and then I remove all the “preemies” or white seeds. If you take the Female plants to full maturity you will eliminate many of the “preemies” or white seeds. If you harvest the Female plants before full maturity you will see more.

Now, the testing begins.

You’ll need to take a certain amount of seeds and test the germination rate. You want to see how many seeds germinate and how quickly (12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours).

I like to see 90% germinate within 24 hours. I usually take 50 seeds – using varying genetics to make up that 50 – and place them in a cup of water overnight to see how many germinate. To hit 90% we want to see 45 germinate within 24 hours. Some may be within 5 hours and others may be within 24 hours, but you want to know that your seeds will germinate as that is the start of the plant.

Nice white taproots sticking out of the seed is what you are looking for.

You can grow out these seeds if you have space. You can also have other growers test out your seeds. If you choose the latter option, always be honest that they are new seeds. Encourage the recipient to watch them through the entire flowering cycle and to give you feedback on the plants that are grown along with how many are Male, Female, and stable. Many breeders use “testers” to work their seeds before they are made available for purchase.

Testing germination is one step but the real test is growing out the seeds to see what phenotypes and bud come from them. For this you will need to grow them all the way through veg into flower then harvest/cure and smoke them.

Until you’ve done that process you won’t know if you have stable seeds, what attributes of the Male or Female are prevalent, and what you will see in the finished product. This is called a “pheno hunt.”

gemmacert-pro-cannabis-breedingI have pheno hunts in many facilities and have been involved in many pheno hunts over the past two decades. I enjoy the pheno hunt as it allows you to see different genetics grow, which are hearty and which are weak, what terpene profiles come out of which genetics, and finding a “keeper” from all the seeds is a great project for any breeder.

Many respected growers have a legacy connected to their “keeper” that they spent time finding and working over and over.

I’m sure you know many genetics that are used today that started with a pheno hunt from a famous grower/breeder.

I also like to test my phenos with a GemmaCert Pro throughout the flower cycle to understand their THC and CBD levels. It’s another piece of data that you can factor into the selection process.

During this testing process, you will need to clone off the different phenos to make sure you have that genetic for another round.

The worst thing that can happen is you get through the flower cycle and enjoy a spliff of Pheno #007 and you realize that you don’t have a clone of it which means you have lost Pheno #007, potentially forever.

Pheno hunting takes organization and documentation to make sure you have at least one, and better yet two or three, clones of each phenotype to make sure you can continue to grow it… if it is the keeper. If you decide that a pheno is not the keeper then you can eliminate any clones from that pheno to make space for other tests or just make space in general in your rooms.

Lastly, you find the keeper pheno and you start to run full rooms, crops, or enough of it to have it in production. This is the last step in the breeding cycle. You’ve made the seeds, you’ve tested the seeds, you’ve selected a keeper from a pheno hunt, and now you are running crops of the keeper pheno.

It’s your decision if you pass out that genetic for others to use, if you hold on to it to have it be more exclusive, or if you want to now use that keeper pheno to breed again to make your own crosses.

In America, we like to have exclusive genetics in our licensed facilities so that patients and customers come to our dispensaries to purchase that genetic over our competition. It’s much better to have something that no one else has to make people come to your shop. You’ll know you have a great genetic when people start re-naming their plants to your genetic as imitation is the highest form of flattery and you can always tell the difference between real genetics and re-named/non-tested genetics.

How many plants do you need?  Can the home grower without much space also create quality genetics? What tips and tricks can you share for these folks? LED lights? Grow room advice?

Technically, you only need one Male plant and one Female plant to make seeds happen.

Depending on your room size or plant count, you can use one Male and one Female to make many seeds (hundreds of seeds).

The biggest part of the breeding process is the selection of the Male and Female plants. Picking the right Female plant and having a proper Male plant will make all the difference in your seed production. Think of it the same way as breeding dogs, cows, or fish – “from good stock comes great stock.”

My family owns a cattle ranch and we breed our own cattle. The bull is of high pedigree and we have cows that are known to always produce great calves. The same holds true with cannabis plants. If you have a good father and mother, then you will have good seeds that come from that father and mother.

Tips to start would be to start small – yes, it takes more time to make lots of seeds, but after some practice then you can expand if you like.

You can also learn many things from watching YouTube videos, talking to breeders that are around you, and seeking knowledge on the topic. I worked with many breeders before I ever started making seeds. I worked as a seed tester for many breeders before I decided to make my first line of genetics.

Another tip would be to start understanding Male traits and how you will find a Male suitable to use for breeding. Many new breeders find this part to be the hardest – selecting or finding a Male. The key is not to use just any Male you can find, but a good Male.

Another thing to read up on is “line breeding in cannabis”.  Understand the different generations of seeds, how line-breeding works, and know that you may not have great seeds for years down the road, but that you will have great seeds at some point. When you look at the legends of breeding like SOMA, DNA, Green House, and others, realize they have been working for decades on certain genetics and testing and spreading the plant.

It’s a very noble thing to help other growers in that way. How would we all be growing these plants if there wasn’t a breeder involved at the start?

As for lights, grow room advice, and environmental aspects, you’ll have to wait for other articles I’ll be writing in the future, or reach out with questions. I’m focusing this all on breeding for now… as it’s one of my favorite topics to cover along with terpene profiles/tastes.

Can you explain the selection process, which plants, and why?

I will say that, personally, this is my favorite part of the breeding process.

After all the hard work selecting Males & Females, going through a grow cycle to make seeds, testing the seeds, and growing them out, you finally get to start deciding which to keep and which to let go. I use the following aspects in my selection process and they are in no particular order. They are all puzzle pieces but they all work together to show you the “best” pheno to keep depending on what you are looking for.

  • Growth rate
  • Height (short or tall)
  • Ability to handle nutrients
  • Resilience to drying out or issues
  • Potency – THC & CBD – tested with GemmaCert Pro
  • Terpene profile – how it smells in veg, flower, and as a finished bud… and as an extract, if you can
  • Growth rate – fast or slow
  • Maturity rate (how many days in flower must it grow to be fully mature for harvest)
  • Stability in flower (any herms on branches or on the plant completely means you would kill off that pheno to protect the rest of the room)
  • Being an outlier – does this pheno have attributes that no other pheno has (i.e. color, scent, structure, etc.)

I like to make a spreadsheet with all of these topics with space for notes.

Sometimes I use a 1-10 scale to rate certain topics and sometimes I rate the phenos 1-10 during the growth phases. This way I know which phenos I like and which ones I don’t like. Or, more specifically, which ones to keep an eye on during the flower cycle.

I also look at the leaf growth. The serration of the leaves, how wide the leaves grow, and how many leaves are on a plant. You can tell a lot about a seedling from the leaves it grows. Are they long thin, haze-like leaves? Are they wide, stout kush-like leaves? Are these attributes going to come out during the flower cycle or will it be short/stout but have a long cola with a crazy terpene profile?

RELATED READING: 2021 Will Be the Year of the Terpene

In this last case, you may have an outlier or truly unique pheno. Using a GemmaCert ProI test the phenos in weeks 2, 4, 6, 8, and after they have been cured. This allows me to see how the THC and CBD are being produced during the flower cycle, and what the finished product will have for potency.

If you see the THC plateau in Weeks 6 – 8 then you may want to consider keeping a pheno that did not plateau. The GemmaCert Pro adds a level of data that was not available in years past for the selection process. We use one in every facility to make sure we know how the plants work in every corner of the room and how seedlings perform throughout the flower cycle.

Once you have harvested the plants and can smoke them, you will have all the information you need to pick a keeper. Many people decide off the taste & effect. If you use that method along with the above list of characteristics you can keep a pheno that grows well, has proper potency, tastes great, and has the effect that is desired.

What is your opinion about THC and CBD in the breeding process? Can you tell us about your terpene-focused line?

THC and CBD in cannabis breeding have always been a hot topic of discussion.

Personally, I focus on breeding for THC and terpene profiles.

In today’s world of hemp, there is a lot of focus on CBD production with a goal to have high amounts of CBD for processed items. In other words, the more CBD you have present in the genetics, then the more CBD will yield from extraction and the more products you can make or the more of one product you can make.

I don’t solely focus on THC as terpenes are a huge part of the effect and also in remedies to certain medical ailments. As the cannabis world has progressed over the decades, many patients focus on certain cannabinoids and terpenes for their ailments.

THC-V, for example,  is found in Durban Poison and said to help with PTSD. So, you can breed with Durban Poison and hopefully add that THC-V to other genetics depending on which pheno is kept and tested by a regulated testing lab.

Also, terpene profiles are being more and more focused upon since tolerance has increased. Terpenes provide the flavor and taste of the plant, along with some therapeutic benefits. Since tolerance has increased dramatically for the average consumer over the past 20 years, more and more people turn to scent and flavor.

I try to find terpene profiles that also have high THC to use for breeding and then through testing the seeds I’m looking for unique terpene profiles – i.e. Grape, Lemon, Citrus, Gassy, Musky, Fruity, etc.

A lot of the THC potency will come from cultivation techniques (proper environment, nutrient recipe, and growth techniques) while the terpene profile will be unique to that plant’s genetics and also enhanced through proper flushing, harvest, and curing. There’s a lot of great cannabis that is lost with improper curing and flushing procedures.

We use the GemmaCert Pro to test all phenos throughout the flowering cycle to understand how THC and CBD relate to each other and how they are produced. I love finding the 22%+ THC with 7-9% CBD in a final product, especially if that pheno has a great terpene profile.

Not necessarily the specific smell, but something strong that you can smell when you walk into the flower room. Conversely, it’s great to know that a pheno is 12% THC with less than 2% CBD….that’s probably not your keeper.

What genetics do you use?

This is all up to the grower or creator.

I have my preferences that I’ve laid out but everyone likes a certain type of cannabis or will want to create a certain type of plant.

I really liked the Orange Mints from Franchise Genetics that was used by many to make different crosses. I took a stout, hearty Male with a solid terpene profile that was very “Orange” and bred it with some Female plants that I’ve worked over the years.

Again, I like finding new terpene profiles that are retained during the extraction process. That means that the extractions smell just like the plant. Examples include Grape Bubba, Lemon G, Chem i95, and Orange Cookies, just to name a few that have high terpene retention through extractions. More and more patients and customers are turning to extractions in new cannabis markets and an extract that tastes like the flower is highly sought after. Kosher Kush is another one that comes to mind or the now-famous GMO.

Can you talk about why numbers are so important when you work with plants and genetics?

Numbers come into play in many things — the number of Female plants to use in breeding, the number of plants you can grow in the flower room at one given time, the number of clones to cut off each pheno in your pheno hunt, the numbers for potency of CBD or THC, the number of seeds you get from a plant, the number of plants that you won’t keep from the pheno hunt, the Number 1 plant that you keep from each genetic, and on and on…

I think the potency numbers are the biggest data that I use to help me decide because that’s something I never had in the past. I used to base my selection process on many attributes that were not quantifiable with a real number. Now I get to test them all and understand what the potency is. Obviously potency is not the only deciding factor but you can bet if I find something with low potency in the pheno hunt it will probably not make it through the flower cycle as I need to make room for the other plants or just need to kill off plants to get to the “keeper.”

Anything that helps us make a decision that puts us closer to the “keeper” is saving us time, money, and resources in the end and that’s a massive help today with perpetual cycles, massive facilities, labor hours, and overall efficiency.

A question that a lot of folks want to know:  How can you ‘breed the THC out’ to create high CBD flower and keep the THC levels below the legal cap of 0.3%?

To increase CBD levels and decrease THC levels you first need to know the THC and CBD levels. This is where I turn to a GemmaCert Pro to help me select the high-CBD plants and breed them together. I then work those seeds to find the keeper pheno that has high CBD and breed that again with another high-CBD male.

We work those seeds and find the highest CBD pheno using my GemmaCert Pro to test all the phenos so that I can be confident that I am picking the actual high CBD genetic… not the one that tastes the most like cherries (an older trick to finding CBD genetics), or which one is the tallest with the smallest branches (a very well known hemp trait in plant growth).

You need to know that you are selecting the high CBD plants to “breed out” the THC. Obviously, if you are working through 100s of seeds at a time, you can have a better chance to find the actual high CBD pheno that will become the “golden goose” of your work… the keeper.

It all starts with genetic selection, breeding, and working through the seeds to find the next piece of the high CBD puzzle to breed with.

Across the U.S., we see many “high-CBD” strains that still have an abundance of THC prevalent. I know in Europe there are many people selling high-CBD flower as cannabis. I think that transparency and honesty are at the root of cannabis breeding, and a product like the GemmaCert Pro that can test the flower on-site in seconds to show you if it is high CBD or high THC is worth its weight in gold.

Again, I only focus on THC and terpene profiles. I don’t work in the hemp industry. But I know plenty of people that are focused on high-CBD-only genetics these days and, much like us, they are breeding and working through seeds in large amounts to find a pheno to keep and stabilize it to make sure others can grow high-CBD plants.


John Hunt is a cannabis cultivator/breeder/business person that oversees many facilities in the US. His focus is on terpene retention in extraction and also breeding for unique terpene profiles. He oversees cultivation facilities in numerous states that cultivate medical cannabis products and has been involved in the regulated US cannabis industry since 2009. You can find him on Instagram at @grimeygatsby
To learn more about the GemmaCert Pro, CLICK HERE

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