Smooth density gradient in stonewool mat provides a bottom layer richer in oxygen


Smooth density gradient in stonewool mat provides a bottom layer richer in oxygen

Bottom layer dries more quickly

Text by Peter Visser  (Weekly Groenten & Fruit August 8th 2014)

Alongside all the focus on climate control, interest in management of the root environment is also increasing. This requires a substrate with a uniform water balance. There is a new type of mat that delivers a bottom layer richer in oxygen, among other features.

In the search for a stonewool mat with the most uniform water content possible in all directions, Cultilene developed the Exact Air as a new standard. Through a new fibre structure, the density of the mat increases in very small steps. With this Gradient Technology, the density of the material at the top of the mat is the highest and there are fewer stonewool fibres at the bottom of the mat. This means that water is better retained at the top of the mat and therefore more easily drained at the bottom. Remy Maat from Cultilene: “Normally, the thin bottom layer of a stone-wool mat contains 95 to 100 percent water. Exact Air dries the bottom layer better, reducing this by ten percent.” For most mats, the difference in water content between the bottom and top is 30 to 40 percent. With Exact Air, this difference is now ten percent lower, reducing the difference by a quarter to a third.

"During a test, we measured 100 percent moisture content at the bottom of a standard mat three minutes after the drain started. With the Exact Air, this was limited to 85 to 90 percent. In my opinion, there is currently no other mat that can do this." The fibre structure is layered horizontally, which also contributes to good moisture and root distribution. “If you cut some vertically-layered mats open, you can sometimes see the shape of the water-level dome in the root mass.”

More efficient hair roots
In the second half of the growing season in particular, the manufacturing process prevents a soaking wet bottom layer in the mat, with a lack of oxygen and increased root death.
In comparative growing tests, more roots could be observed in the middle of the mat. At the bottom, the well-known large masses of inefficient water roots no longer formed and the roots remained nice and white throughout the mat. Measurements also showed that the EC and pH were more uniform throughout the mat.
Maat: “This mat is more forgiving when you make an irrigation error at the end of the season. Around six weeks after the longest day, with damp conditions outside, irrigation errors are easier to make. If you accidentally supply additional water during this period, it’s not a disaster. With this mat it’s not as easy to overwater the plant.”
Reducing risks is not the only advantage, however. The differences in water content throughout the greenhouse are also reduced and management becomes more precise. “You can use up more existing water or easily supply more water. The crops react more if you change something in the water supply or fertiliser. Growers want to move towards quicker control. Previously, the primary focus was on the part of the plant above the ground. But now interest in what’s going on ‘below the ground’, in the substrate, is growing.”

Healthier crops
The first tests with the Exact Air mats began in Poland, a slightly more closed test market, which was also closer to the Polish factory in which the mats are produced. Smaller tests were then started in the Netherlands, initially using tomatoes and cucumbers. With cucumbers in particular, the percentage of class 1 fruits was a little higher and the crops were healthier. After visiting the Dutch tests, a Polish grower decided to give it a go. In 2012, 50 hectares of the new stonewool mats were laid in Poland and this year the area was extended to around 200 hectares. Next year, further expansion is expected in Poland and the UK. Responses from Dutch growers were also positive, so Cultilene expects it to be laid across the first full sites here too.

Thicker mats
In practice, there seems to be a trend towards increasing the area with 10-cm-thick mats. This can be advantageous, but if the choice for a thicker mat is based simply on the desire for a less wet bottom layer, Maat suggests that an Exact Air stonewool mat with standard dimensions can be a good alternative. He does believe that the tendency towards narrower and thicker mats with the same substrate volume will continue, however. “In lit crops, it helps with encouraging a better plant balance. The reach of the water supply also increases; with a wider dome in comparison with the width of the mat, you reach more of the stonewool when watering. You try to continue working towards an optimal system.”



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