Allan Baucom heads a large agriculture enterprise and grows several thousand acres of grain crops and cotton in and around Monroe, N.C.

He’s done it well for plenty of years and says a good soil testing program is one of the hallmarks on which his farming operation is built.

As his farming operation got bigger and bigger, so did the challenges of keeping up with varying soil types, ever-changing soil fertility products and procedures for getting soil samples to and from a reputable lab in a timely manner.

Among those challenges has long been getting representative soil samples done efficiently and timely enough to provide an opportunity to make good crop management decisions.

Baucom says he is blessed to have outstanding people working in his farming operation, but the more people involved in getting soil samples out of the ground, boxed and properly identified and sent off to a lab for analysis, the higher the risk human error will create future problems when the crops are planted.

Based on his need to get more timely and more accurate soil test information, Baucom headed an effort to build a mobile soil sampling system that virtually eliminates human error from the soil testing equation.

The new mobile, automated soil sampler, dubbed ‘The Falcon’, has made a big difference in the soil sampling efforts on his own farm and will soon be available to growers across the country.

Necessity has truly been the Mother of Invention with the Falcon. “In our own farming operation, we had a big need for a device like this,” the North Carolina grower says.

He notes that for years soil samples on his farm were taken by whoever had the time to do it. As a result, human error was at times a problem and lack of uniformity in the testing was a constant concern.

Based on these concerns, four years ago one person was designated to be the soil sample person on the farm. While that arrangement solved some challenges, it created some more, and he began to look for a simple system that could both speed up the soil sample process and make it more efficient.

“From my personal experience, I knew a mobile, self-contained sampling system had to be simple to operate, and I believe the Falcon will prove to be simple in operation.

“To be functional in the field, an operator needs a vehicle with a seven pin receptacle and a tablet or laptop to generate the GPS information needed to determine sample spots in a field.”

Machine built with farmers' needs in mind

Baucom says the final patents were received recently, so the mobile soil sampler is now patented from front to back.

Still to come is a sophisticated electronic system that will add to the many features already available with the Falcon.

“This machine was built from the ground up with the farmer in mind, and we’ve tried to include every possible feature that will help farmers improve the soil sampling process and hopefully make better crop management decisions,” he adds.

Right now, two fully workable models of the machine are in operation.

One is dedicated to Baucom’s 6.000-plus acre farming operation. The other has been in operation in New York, Illinois and the Dakotas.

“We want to get as much production data as we can from actual farming operations.

“We feel confident, based on our farming operation, we covered everything a grower might run across in our part of the country, but we want to be sure we don’t miss any unusual soil types or production characteristics that are common in other parts of the country,” he says.

Takes 12 samples at a time without farmer ever leaving his vehicle

The Falcon is equipped with a stainless steel probe and drum to prevent any metal contamination of the soil sample.

Once the user determines the GPS coordinates to be sampled, the Falcon’s 5-foot diameter stainless steel wheel turns and the probe takes a soil sample every 15 feet.

The machine will then take as many samples as needed per grid or zone, mix the samples into a representative sample, box them in easily identifiable containers and store them.

All processes are controlled remotely and can be viewed on the color screen in the cab of the vehicle.

The operator can take 12 samples at a time without ever leaving his pickup truck or farm vehicle.

Total capacity is recommended at 156 samples, but it can be tweaked to handle 200 or more before it has to be unloaded and reloaded.

Once the front-end electrical system is incorporated into the sampler, a user will be able to integrate the system with a tablet or laptop computer, which will be able to integrate directly with GPS signals and provide growers with a time stamp for when and where the samples were taken, further reducing the risk of human error in the sampling process.

Though development of the Falcon has been an ongoing project for several years, the need for such a device has never been more evident in some parts of the Southeast. In areas hit with 100-year record rainfall, nutrients were washed away in places where leaching doesn’t usually occur.

“On our farm, and to varying degrees across our part of North Carolina and the Southeast, there were many fields in which water stood or moved through the field at a level we simply haven’t seen in our lifetime.

“As a result, there are fields that under any semblance of normal conditions don’t leach nutrients from the soil. Or, at least, we have a good handle on how much leaching goes on in these fields.

“This year, everything we knew about soil leaching was literally washed away by the heavy and continual rains we got throughout the season,” Baucom says.

From a personal standpoint, he adds that for the first time in his lifetime, he was unable to harvest crops he planted.

When farmers get ready to plant crops in the spring of 2014, many are going to find dramatic changes in the levels of nutrients in the soil.

Without an efficient and timely system for taking, shipping and using the returned data from soil samples, it will be a difficult year next year, the North Carolina grower says.

Regardless of how they take soil samples, the veteran North Carolina grower says sample, sample, and sample again will be good advice in areas most severely impacted by the record rains in 2013.

One option will be the new mobile soil sampler developed by the North Carolina farmer. The Falcon is being built by Baucom Service and will be marketed by Carolina Ag and Equipment, both owned by Baucom .