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[Author: Mark Othmer, 01.2016 | Keywords: Nebraska Field Notes, Irrigation]

Everyone involved with Nebraska agriculture understands the importance of irrigation and the value it adds to crop production. The following article chronicles the invention, beginning production and manufacturing of the center pivot systems that have become so vital to irrigation in Nebraska.

According to one agriculture historian, two basic inventions of the past century completely changed farming methods and made possible the tremendous increase in productivity we witness today.

The first was the conversion from horse-drawn farm power to tractors; the other was invented about 1950 by a man who grew up in Columbus, Nebraska and totally revolutionized farming by the time of his death in 1980.

The American Indian may have introduced irrigation long before the Nebraska Territory formed or the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but it was not recorded. We do know that M. Washington Hinman diverted water from a stream to raise vegetables at Fort McPherson as early as 1863. In 1894, the Anderson Wheel, which was powered by running water in streams, scooped up water from the same stream and transferred it to ditches or ponds for use on crops. Windmills followed by pumping underground water and were made more efficient and soon replaced by gasoline and later electric-powered pumps.

Then, in the 1940s, sprinklers began to be adapted; canals were excavated and improved by ditches with gated pipes and siphon tubes, and aluminum pipes came into common use. But all of these concepts were about to be overshadowed by a newly developed invention and, by 2000, about 8 million acres of Nebraska farmland were irrigated.

Frank Zybach was born in 1894 in Oregon to Swiss immigrant parents. At the age of 3 months his family moved to Columbus, where his father was a blacksmith. In his teens, Frank, who loved to tinker, invented and patented a driverless tractor which plowed concentric circles in ever-decreasing size from the outside to the middle. He also worked on an automatic transmission for tractors and trucks but failed to perfect the idea.

In the 1940s, Zybach was a tenant farmer in Colorado where he attended an irrigation demonstration. There, sprinklers on stands were attached, moved and reattached to water sources. The extreme and inefficient use of manpower caught his eye and although the idea of horse-powered circle irrigation was briefly and unsuccessfully experimented with in 1878, he had never heard of it and reintroduced it without the horse and fresh changes. In 1948 a crude forerunner of the center-pivot irrigation system took shape, first with guy wires holding arms about 2 feet off the ground, mounted on skids. The skids were replaced with wheels, the height was increased to accommodate taller crops, and in 1949, Zybach applied for a patent on the “Zybach Self-Propelled Sprinkling Apparatus.”

In 1952 the patent was issued for the then water-powered, five-towered, 600-foot boom with 15 sprinkler heads which could irrigate a circular area of 135 acres, the better portion of a quarter section. Zybach partnered with A. E. Trowbridge of Columbus who put up the capital necessary to begin manufacturing the new center pivot irrigation system and in the first two years of production 10 systems were sold.

Zybach and Trowbridge sold the patent to Robert Daugherty’s Valley Manufacturing Company of Columbus in 1954, retaining a 5 percent royalty for the life of the patent. Valley Manufacturing made either five or seven systems, depending on whose numbers are accurate, while Zybach and Trowbridge began buying up dry but potentially irrigable Nebraska land, betting on the expanding use of center pivot irrigation.

In 1968 Valley Manufacturing changed its name to Valmont and became a publicly traded corporation. In 1970 there were about 350 Valmont center pivot systems being used in Nebraska, which increased to 1,100 in 1975. The original patent expired, but Valmont was constantly improving and redesigning the center pivot concept. By 1990 virtually all of the center pivots employed worldwide were produced by Nebraska’s five manufacturers, the largest being Valmont. In 2000, the then four Nebraska manufacturers made about 85 percent of the world’s center pivots.

With subsequent improvements – including an articulated arm to fill in the corners of sections, application of fertilizers and pesticides, straight line irrigation, uniform coverage for entire fields, the ability to furnish from ½- to 2-inch coverage per rotation, GPS monitoring and remote controls – center pivots have become extremely efficient to the point where about 65 percent of Nebraska’s and 42 percent of U.S. irrigated fields utilize center pivot technology.

Frank Zybach died on Aug. 19, 1950, in Columbus but his basic technology has, without question, changed the way the world farms. It has been said that from outer space three manmade technologies are visible: the Great Wall of China, electric illumination of the world’s cities and the green crop circles made by center pivot irrigation.

About the Author

Mark Othmer

For nearly 20 years, Mark has traveled across Nebraska calling on members. A “regular” at the State Capitol, Mark keeps his finger on the pulse of legislative issues affecting members. When he’s not driving across Nebraska, Mark can be found golfing, cheering on the Nebraska Cornhuskers and spending lazy afternoons at the family farm.