Shelli Mader
Hays, Kan.

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May 25, 2010
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Center pivot irrigation revolutionizes agriculture

Like tractors, center pivot irrigation is one of the staples of modern-day agriculture. The Irrigation Association calls the center pivot irrigation system, "without a doubt the greatest advancement in agriculture since the McCormick reaper." The Scientific American says the center pivot is, "perhaps the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor."

But in the late 1940s, when visionary Frank Zybach introduced his center pivot irrigation system to his small farming community of Strasburg, Colo., his "new-fangled contraption" was nearly laughed out of town.

For much of Zybach's early life, ridicule and failure seemed to follow him. Zybach was born in 1894 in Lafayette, Ore. His Swiss-immigrant parents moved him to Columbus, Neb., when he was just 3-months-old. Zybach's family was poor, so Zybach quit school in the seventh grade so he could help his father with their farm and blacksmith shop.

Zybach created his first invention when he was 13. He was tired of spending hours walking in the dust behind their horse-drawn harrow, so he built a small cart with swivel wheels and a seat. He mounted it on the front end of the harrow. Detachable pins held the swivel wheels straight and allowed him to remove them when he needed to turn. Though his invention was helpful on the farm, it wasn't successful elsewhere.

In 1920, when he was in his 20s, Zybach built an automatic tractor guide which let him operate his steel-wheeled tractor without a driver. To use his invention, Zybach plowed the first round in his field aboard his tractor and then let the tractor do the rest by itself. The tractor stayed in the furrow and farmed the whole field. Though he equipped his invention with a safety shutdown to kill the motor in case the tractor got away from the field, the engine overheated, or ran out of oil; his invention caused commotion all over the community. Seeing a driver-less tractor panicked dozens of his neighbors. His attempts to patent the invention failed.

In the 1920s Zybach married and had two daughters. During the decade he invented a walking doll for his girls and an automatic transmission for automobiles. Efforts to patent those inventions failed too.

Zybach spent much of his early adult life farming and inventing, though repeated efforts to patent his inventions were unsuccessful. When his daughters were grown, Zybach and his wife moved near Strasburg, Colo., where his brother and brother-in-law lived. Zybach bought a section of land outside Byers and continued to farm.

Urban Elpers, a long-time Strasburg resident was still a boy when the white-haired Zybach family moved to the area. He landed job farming for Zybach and got a first-hand account of his inventing abilities.

"I drove tractor for him the first year that he was here," Elpers recalled. "Back then we only had old chisel plows and they didn't have hydraulics like they do now. Most people would wear out the brakes on their tractors when they were turning. Frank (Zybach) made an invention that pulled the plow up when you turned so it didn't wear your brakes out. The idea didn't catch on, and hydraulics came out about then, but it sure did help us and save those tractor brakes."

Zybach continued to build things to make life easier on his farm, but with no success in securing a patent. His avenue of inventing took a sharp turn in the summer of 1947 after he accompanied a friend to an irrigation field day in Prospect Valley, Colo. There, he saw several men connect lengths of aluminum pipe, wait while the field watered, wade through mud to disassemble the pipe, move it to another location, put it back together again, and repeat the whole process again and again. Zybach knew that there had to be an easier way to complete such a common task.

At once, Zybach began working to find a better way to irrigate fields. He talked to Elpers's dad about setting up a prototype sprinkler on his farm, but the elder Elpers didn't think that Zybach's idea would work on his 120-acre flood irrigated operation. So, Zybach asked Ernest Englebrecht, a farmer living north of Strasburg, to try his invention on his 40-acre sheep pasture. Though Englebrecht was skeptical, he agreed to Zybach's idea.

In 1948, Zybach built the first model of what the Irrigation Association refers to as a "self-propelled center pivot overhead sprinkler irrigation machine." Zybach's first model was mounted on metal skids and had two towers connected by wires that worked two-way water control valves. The sprinkler pipe hung about 2-feet from the ground.

Zybach continued to build and perfect his idea. He had to rely on the resources at hand to make all the pieces for his invention. Over the years Zybach had become a skilled metal worker, so he made most of his own parts. In 1949 he applied for a patent, and finally received one on July 22, 1952 for the "Zybach Self Propelled Sprinkling Irrigation Apparatus."

"Everything Zybach used on the sprinkler was homemade except the sprinklers and pump," Elpers remembered. "He used wheels from a rod weeder and made his own hydraulic cylinder, a controller to maintain the speed of the towers, and practically everything else except the bolts."

Zybach painted his invention red and installed it on Englebrecht's place. The sprinkler had five towers and sprinkler pipe that passed about 3-feet above the ground. Water pressure moved the system in a circle. The pressure drove a piston up and down in a cylinder. The piston connected to rods and levers which were attached to a bar. The bar turned the cogs on the metal wheels and moved the system forward. Zybach knew that the speed of the tower closest to the pivot point needed to be less than those that were further out, but he couldn't find a two-way water valve that would work for the job, so he designed and built his own.

Though Zybach made history with his invention, people didn't latch on to the idea right away.

"It looked kind of dumb at first," Elpers said. "It left 5-acres in each corner of the field dry. People wondered what to do with those corners. It was kind of a mickey-mouse deal."

The invention did have limitations. It wouldn't work in tall crops because the nozzles were close to the ground. The system was hard to keep in line at times too. Zybach's biggest challenge was proving to the public and agricultural industry that he had a good idea.

People in the area referred to Zybach's invention as that "new-fangled irrigation system." Zybach quickly realized that he needed help to market his product. He contacted automobile dealer and business man, A.E. Trowbridge from his hometown of Columbus, Neb. Trowbridge put up capital for the venture, and Zybach sold him 49 percent interest in the patent rights.

"Because there was a better market for the system and tax-wise Colorado isn't conducive to manufacturing, Zybach went back to Nebraska to build his sprinkler," Elpers said.

Zybach and Trowbridge rented a machine shop in Columbus and started to build sprinklers. Zybach redesigned his system so that the main irrigating pipeline was suspended 9-10 feet above the ground, instead of 3-feet above ground like the sprinkler on the Englebrecht farm. The higher setting allowed farmers to use the system to irrigate corn and other tall crops.

From 1952 to 1954, the Zybach-Trowbridge partnership manufactured 10 systems. In the fall of 1954, Zybach met an investor who saw great promise in his center pivot.

Robert B. Daugherty was a struggling businessman looking for ways to diversify his company. In 1946 he spent his life savings - $5,000 - to start a small business on a farm west of Valley, Neb. His company, Valley Manufacturing, started building farm elevators, speed jacks, wagon hoists, universal joints, hay racks and other tools and equipment. When economic trouble hit the farm industry in 1952, Daugherty began searching for new products. His search led him to Columbus, where he met Zybach.

In September of 1954, Zybach and Trowbridge agreed to license their center pivot irrigation patent to Daugherty. Zybach and Trowbridge would receive a 5 percent royalty on every machine Valley produced until the patent expired in 1969. Daugherty agreed to give the partnership distribution rights to the system in Nebraska and Colorado for an indefinite period of time, which turned out to be less than 5 years, at which time Valley took over the exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights.

Over the next 10 years, Valley worked to make Zybach's system sturdier, taller and more reliable. In 1954, Valley produced only five of the units. By 1960, the company produced 50 systems annually. Today, Valley (now known as Valmont Industries Inc.) is the world's leading manufacturer of agricultural irrigation systems. More than 12 million acres in the U.S. alone are irrigated with center pivots. Over half of these pivots carry the Valley or Valmont logos.

In the 30 years following World War II, at least 60 manufacturers realized the potential of center pivots and began manufacturing the machines. Today, the entire production of center pivot irrigation systems in the U.S. rests with fewer than one dozen manufacturers.

Center pivots have not only helped farmers in the United States grow crops in places that weeds wouldn't even grow 60 years ago, but the systems have revolutionize agriculture worldwide. By the mid-1970s Valmont began manufacturing a substantial number of systems in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, China, Thailand, Latin America and Switzerland. Today, the number of countries using center pivots continues to grow.

"Just think what corn and alfalfa would be worth without center pivots," Elpers said. "They sure wouldn't be raised nearly as much."

The Englebrechts used Zybach's original center pivot for over 20 years and still have three of the original towers left.

In 1973, Zybach received the first Pioneer Irrigation Award ever presented by the Nebraska Water Conference Committee and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1974 he won the Sprinkler Irrigation Association's Industry Achievement Award and the Nebraska chapter of the Alpha Zeta fraternity's award for outstanding achievement.

Zybach died in 1980, but his legacy lives on in green crop circles throughout the world. In 1993, an agriculture engineering landmark was dedicated in Zybach's honor at the Pioneer Village in Minden, Neb. The late University of Nebraska farm management specialist Leslie Sheffield said that Zybach "was one of the few single inventors who had a great impact on the field of agriculture and irrigation."

Like tractors, center pivot irrigation is one of the staples of modern-day agriculture. The Irrigation Association calls the center pivot irrigation system, "without a doubt the greatest advancement in agriculture since the McCormick reaper." The Scientific American says the center pivot is, "perhaps the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor."

But in the late 1940s, when visionary Frank Zybach introduced his center pivot irrigation system to his small farming community of Strasburg, Colo., his "new-fangled contraption" was nearly laughed out of town.

For much of Zybach's early life, ridicule and failure seemed to follow him. Zybach was born in 1894 in Lafayette, Ore. His Swiss-immigrant parents moved him to Columbus, Neb., when he was just 3-months-old. Zybach's family was poor, so Zybach quit school in the seventh grade so he could help his father with their farm and blacksmith shop.

Zybach created his first invention when he was 13. He was tired of spending hours walking in the dust behind their horse-drawn harrow, so he built a small cart with swivel wheels and a seat. He mounted it on the front end of the harrow. Detachable pins held the swivel wheels straight and allowed him to remove them when he needed to turn. Though his invention was helpful on the farm, it wasn't successful elsewhere.

In 1920, when he was in his 20s, Zybach built an automatic tractor guide which let him operate his steel-wheeled tractor without a driver. To use his invention, Zybach plowed the first round in his field aboard his tractor and then let the tractor do the rest by itself. The tractor stayed in the furrow and farmed the whole field. Though he equipped his invention with a safety shutdown to kill the motor in case the tractor got away from the field, the engine overheated, or ran out of oil; his invention caused commotion all over the community. Seeing a driver-less tractor panicked dozens of his neighbors. His attempts to patent the invention failed.

In the 1920s Zybach married and had two daughters. During the decade he invented a walking doll for his girls and an automatic transmission for automobiles. Efforts to patent those inventions failed too.

Zybach spent much of his early adult life farming and inventing, though repeated efforts to patent his inventions were unsuccessful. When his daughters were grown, Zybach and his wife moved near Strasburg, Colo., where his brother and brother-in-law lived. Zybach bought a section of land outside Byers and continued to farm.

Urban Elpers, a long-time Strasburg resident was still a boy when the white-haired Zybach family moved to the area. He landed job farming for Zybach and got a first-hand account of his inventing abilities.

"I drove tractor for him the first year that he was here," Elpers recalled. "Back then we only had old chisel plows and they didn't have hydraulics like they do now. Most people would wear out the brakes on their tractors when they were turning. Frank (Zybach) made an invention that pulled the plow up when you turned so it didn't wear your brakes out. The idea didn't catch on, and hydraulics came out about then, but it sure did help us and save those tractor brakes."

Zybach continued to build things to make life easier on his farm, but with no success in securing a patent. His avenue of inventing took a sharp turn in the summer of 1947 after he accompanied a friend to an irrigation field day in Prospect Valley, Colo. There, he saw several men connect lengths of aluminum pipe, wait while the field watered, wade through mud to disassemble the pipe, move it to another location, put it back together again, and repeat the whole process again and again. Zybach knew that there had to be an easier way to complete such a common task.

At once, Zybach began working to find a better way to irrigate fields. He talked to Elpers's dad about setting up a prototype sprinkler on his farm, but the elder Elpers didn't think that Zybach's idea would work on his 120-acre flood irrigated operation. So, Zybach asked Ernest Englebrecht, a farmer living north of Strasburg, to try his invention on his 40-acre sheep pasture. Though Englebrecht was skeptical, he agreed to Zybach's idea.

In 1948, Zybach built the first model of what the Irrigation Association refers to as a "self-propelled center pivot overhead sprinkler irrigation machine." Zybach's first model was mounted on metal skids and had two towers connected by wires that worked two-way water control valves. The sprinkler pipe hung about 2-feet from the ground.

Zybach continued to build and perfect his idea. He had to rely on the resources at hand to make all the pieces for his invention. Over the years Zybach had become a skilled metal worker, so he made most of his own parts. In 1949 he applied for a patent, and finally received one on July 22, 1952 for the "Zybach Self Propelled Sprinkling Irrigation Apparatus."

"Everything Zybach used on the sprinkler was homemade except the sprinklers and pump," Elpers remembered. "He used wheels from a rod weeder and made his own hydraulic cylinder, a controller to maintain the speed of the towers, and practically everything else except the bolts."

Zybach painted his invention red and installed it on Englebrecht's place. The sprinkler had five towers and sprinkler pipe that passed about 3-feet above the ground. Water pressure moved the system in a circle. The pressure drove a piston up and down in a cylinder. The piston connected to rods and levers which were attached to a bar. The bar turned the cogs on the metal wheels and moved the system forward. Zybach knew that the speed of the tower closest to the pivot point needed to be less than those that were further out, but he couldn't find a two-way water valve that would work for the job, so he designed and built his own.

Though Zybach made history with his invention, people didn't latch on to the idea right away.

"It looked kind of dumb at first," Elpers said. "It left 5-acres in each corner of the field dry. People wondered what to do with those corners. It was kind of a mickey-mouse deal."

The invention did have limitations. It wouldn't work in tall crops because the nozzles were close to the ground. The system was hard to keep in line at times too. Zybach's biggest challenge was proving to the public and agricultural industry that he had a good idea.

People in the area referred to Zybach's invention as that "new-fangled irrigation system." Zybach quickly realized that he needed help to market his product. He contacted automobile dealer and business man, A.E. Trowbridge from his hometown of Columbus, Neb. Trowbridge put up capital for the venture, and Zybach sold him 49 percent interest in the patent rights.

"Because there was a better market for the system and tax-wise Colorado isn't conducive to manufacturing, Zybach went back to Nebraska to build his sprinkler," Elpers said.

Zybach and Trowbridge rented a machine shop in Columbus and started to build sprinklers. Zybach redesigned his system so that the main irrigating pipeline was suspended 9-10 feet above the ground, instead of 3-feet above ground like the sprinkler on the Englebrecht farm. The higher setting allowed farmers to use the system to irrigate corn and other tall crops.

From 1952 to 1954, the Zybach-Trowbridge partnership manufactured 10 systems. In the fall of 1954, Zybach met an investor who saw great promise in his center pivot.

Robert B. Daugherty was a struggling businessman looking for ways to diversify his company. In 1946 he spent his life savings - $5,000 - to start a small business on a farm west of Valley, Neb. His company, Valley Manufacturing, started building farm elevators, speed jacks, wagon hoists, universal joints, hay racks and other tools and equipment. When economic trouble hit the farm industry in 1952, Daugherty began searching for new products. His search led him to Columbus, where he met Zybach.

In September of 1954, Zybach and Trowbridge agreed to license their center pivot irrigation patent to Daugherty. Zybach and Trowbridge would receive a 5 percent royalty on every machine Valley produced until the patent expired in 1969. Daugherty agreed to give the partnership distribution rights to the system in Nebraska and Colorado for an indefinite period of time, which turned out to be less than 5 years, at which time Valley took over the exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights.

Over the next 10 years, Valley worked to make Zybach's system sturdier, taller and more reliable. In 1954, Valley produced only five of the units. By 1960, the company produced 50 systems annually. Today, Valley (now known as Valmont Industries Inc.) is the world's leading manufacturer of agricultural irrigation systems. More than 12 million acres in the U.S. alone are irrigated with center pivots. Over half of these pivots carry the Valley or Valmont logos.

In the 30 years following World War II, at least 60 manufacturers realized the potential of center pivots and began manufacturing the machines. Today, the entire production of center pivot irrigation systems in the U.S. rests with fewer than one dozen manufacturers.

Center pivots have not only helped farmers in the United States grow crops in places that weeds wouldn't even grow 60 years ago, but the systems have revolutionize agriculture worldwide. By the mid-1970s Valmont began manufacturing a substantial number of systems in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, China, Thailand, Latin America and Switzerland. Today, the number of countries using center pivots continues to grow.

"Just think what corn and alfalfa would be worth without center pivots," Elpers said. "They sure wouldn't be raised nearly as much."

The Englebrechts used Zybach's original center pivot for over 20 years and still have three of the original towers left.

In 1973, Zybach received the first Pioneer Irrigation Award ever presented by the Nebraska Water Conference Committee and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1974 he won the Sprinkler Irrigation Association's Industry Achievement Award and the Nebraska chapter of the Alpha Zeta fraternity's award for outstanding achievement.

Zybach died in 1980, but his legacy lives on in green crop circles throughout the world. In 1993, an agriculture engineering landmark was dedicated in Zybach's honor at the Pioneer Village in Minden, Neb. The late University of Nebraska farm management specialist Leslie Sheffield said that Zybach "was one of the few single inventors who had a great impact on the field of agriculture and irrigation."


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The Fence Post Updated Aug 14, 2012 04:47PM Published May 25, 2010 02:31PM Copyright 2010 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.