Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

34. The Ogallala Aquifer

During the summer of 1947, Frank Zybach observed an irrigation demonstration on his neighbor’s farm near Strasburg, Colorado. Zybach had grown up in Columbus, Nebraska, where he had watched his father, a blacksmith, tinker with metal. Frank liked to invent things. In the 1920s he had applied at age twenty-six for his first patent, an automatic tractor guide for steel-wheeled tractors. Although his first invention never quite made it, over twenty years later, Zybach—a reluctant farmer—still was an engaged inventor. At the demonstration, he thought about how to improve the possibilities of irrigation as he watched a helper move pipes with sprinkler heads on posts from one section of a field to another. Such metal equipment was not practical on most terrains, and turning the system off and on and frequently moving it required a great deal of physical labor. It seemed extremely inefficient, and perhaps the worst part of it was the inevitable leaking and wasting of the water.

Frank Zybach went back to his farm and further pondered what he had witnessed, and he decided he could do better. Later that year, he created a prototype for the first center pivot irrigation system. The water entered through a central wellhead that supplied the water to sprinklers spaced evenly by guy wires on a circular pipe that rotated and rode on skids. After some trial and error, Zybach replaced the skids with wheels. In July 1949 he successfully applied for the “Zybach SelfPropelled Sprinkler Apparatus” patent, and in 1954 he agreed to sell his patent to Bob Daugherty and the Valley Manufacturing Company, now Valmont Industries, of Valley, Nebraska. Over the next few years, Valmont improved upon Zybach’s design and made the irrigation system taller, stronger, and more dependable. The best improvements included

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