Start with soil

Nobody denies the value of a good soil test program. The challenge has always been to obtain enough samples in close enough proximity and in the short period of available time.

Vertical core samplers mounted on quads or trucks were a big improvement over hand sampling, but the process still consumes too much time for many growers. As farm sizes grow, more and more operators find they can’t complete the task before freeze-up.

Enter the world of automated soil samplers.

This small handful of commercially available automated sampling machines use various arrangements of rubber tracks, scoops, knives and large diameter wheels with integral probes. As with most innovative agricultural technology, the newest inventor in the marketplace has the benefit of studying the shortfalls of existing machines and building upon that analysis.

Case in point is Allan Baucom’s new Falcon 5000 automated soil sampler.

Baucom farms 9,000 acres in North Carolina but harvests 14,000 acres a year because he uses a system of double cropping. He also runs an engineering and metal fabrication plant, specializing in agricultural trailers.

“I realized my conventional soil sampling program was time-consuming, labour intensive and often gave me inconsistent results because of the human factor,” he said.

“We work with the latest precision ag technology, therefore our major management decisions are now data driven rather than based on tradition. That’s out the window if you don’t have accurate soil test data.”

The ground-driven drum receives soil samples that fall out of the probe and then thoroughly mixes them before sending them down the slide into the red carousel. Note the geo-referenced bar code labels showing through the windows on each sample bag. | Allan Baucom photo

In pondering how to improve his soil test program, Baucom’s main concern was the variability in sample depths guided by human hands.

After reviewing commercially available automated soil samplers, he concluded they were all too complex and costly. He said he felt it was time to take the bull by the horns and develop his own automated soil sampler that would give himself and customers the benefit of high quality samples at their typical seven-inch depth.

Working with his in-house engineers, Baucom devised a ground-driven, five-foot diameter drum with a single seven-inch probe sticking straight out from the edge. He named it the Falcon 5000 Automated Soil Sampling System.

With one probe mounted on the drum, Falcon 5000 grabs one sample every 15 feet. With two probes mounted 180 degrees opposite each other, it grabs one sample every 7.5 feet. All components that contact soil are made of stainless steel.

The entire apparatus is mounted on a compact, two-wheel trailer that can be towed on the road at the legal speed limit. Recommended operating speed in the field is eight to 12 m.p.h. A pick-up truck easily tows the Falcon 5000 on the highway or in the field.

When Falcon 5000 enters a new field, the drum is lowered into the operating position so the probe has the full weight of the 675-pound steel drum pushing down.

The probe is forced into the soil as the Falcon’s five-foot diameter stainless steel drum rolls forward. Baucom says the rolling inertia of the drum makes it easier for the probe to penetrate, compared to systems that penetrate vertically. | Allan Baucom photo

Once the GPS system is activated and a red sample carousel is positioned to accept samples, the Falcon 5000 is ready to get to work.

With each revolution, the probe drops a soil core into the drum’s hollow compartment. As the drum turns, the samples are mixed. The operator has already entered the desired number of cores into the computer, and when that number is reached, the drum automatically dumps the mixed core samples into a bag located in the red carousel.

Using the Falcon 5000’s GPS labelling system, each bag then receives a bar code and a number to identify it’s exact location in the field.

Most of Baucom’s customers opt for the seven-inch probe, but he also offers probes from four to 12 inches.

“When we do demos, I always try to find a nearby, hard packed gravel roadbed to show how the probe works,” he said.

“It may not penetrate the full seven inches, but it always does an honest five inches. It’ll go that deep into a roadbed where a 250 lb. man can’t even get a probe down less than an inch. I do that just to show people how well this thing works.

“That stainless steel probe is very sharp and very strong. It’s chamfered or tapered both internally and externally, so the ID (inside diameter) increases the further into the probe you go. It opens up in size from the tip to the exit, so there’s no friction along the inside walls of the probe.

“As the probe comes around in a complete 360 degree rotation on the drum, it gradually rolls itself forward into the soil. The entire weight of the wheel is pushing down on the probe where it’s vertical in the soil. That rolling motion makes it a lot easier for the probe to penetrate compared to a vertical machine where you’re trying to push a probe straight down.”

Sample release in extremely wet clay soil can be a problem with many probe designs.

Baucom said the inside taper, with the diameter increasing from the point to the exit, allows the sticky samples to drop freely into the mixing drum.

The probe body is machined from a solid piece of stainless steel. The inside is threaded so tips can be changed. A tip sells for US$75.

The red carousel has slots for 12 containers, each with a geo-referenced sample. Loaded sample bags are placed on shelves in the compartment at the rear of the trailer.

It takes the operator about one minute to transfer the bags to the shelves. As a means of compressing sample time, some Falcon 5000 customers buy many carousels and move full carousels to the storage compartment.

“Every sample bag automatically gets a GPS location label with a bar code that pinpoints the spot where it was taken. The soil lab reads each bar code and places the results from that bag at the corresponding spot in my field,” he said.

“That information is fed back to field maps on my computers through the software we designed ourselves. Our software works fluidly with everybody else’s operating software. It’s universal. The only requirement is that it has to be a shape file.

“We made it this way because I’m a farmer. I abhor, I detest, I become aggravated when I have to buy additional software to operate a piece of equipment.”

Baucom said he has sold about 100 Falcon 5000 units since they were introduced in 2015. They sell for $60,850 with all possible options, he added.

“Our customers are mainly consultants and fertilizer dealers,” he said.

“People ask us what size farm they need to justify buying a $60,000 soil sampler. That depends on your soil, your crops and your yields. We have farmers under 10,000 acres who’ve bought a sampler. I think to economically justify it, you only need about 4,000 acres.”

Baucom said off-farm custom work is more viable with a soil sampling machine than with other farm implements. Western Canadian winters create a significant time factor.

A tight seeding season and a tight harvest season typically dictate that an operator can’t do much custom work with either his seeding rig or his combine.

However, the Falcon 5000 can cover a lot of custom acres travelling at the recommended speeds of eight to 12 m.p.h. picking up 40 samples per minute.

You can visit the Falcon website here.

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