Valmont’s Center Pivot Patent Runs Out

original patent protecting Zybach’s first center pivot systemLike many innovators in new industries, Valley Irrigation (later Valmont Industries) struggled throughout the 1950s and 60s to refine their product and develop a customer base. Valley built only seven center pivot systems in 1955. By 1960, production had still only reached 50 units a year.

Then, by the end of the 1960s, the market took off – just as the original patent protecting Zybach’s invention ran out. By 1972, there were 2,725 pivot systems in Nebraska alone. By 1980, there were 18,785. And by 2002, there were an estimated 258,000 center pivots installed around the world.

Even before the patent ran out in 1969, other companies were bringing out their own systems and claiming that they weren’t using ideas from Zybach and Valley. Valley disagreed. The company filed a number of patent infringement lawsuits. They won most of them and settled out of court on others.

Robert Daugherty (right) now says, “I don’t think anybody likes competition… We were involved in some litigation that people infringed on the patent. That was a time consuming, costly activity that did some good.”film_daugherty_R

For the irrigation industry, the 1970s were like the Internet “Dot Com Bubble” period of the 1990s – lots of new companies tried their luck and ended going out of business. All told, more than 80 individuals and companies tried to manufacture and sell center pivot systems through the boom years. For a time around 1973, sales were stimulated by the Soviet Union buying up huge quantities of American grain. But by 1980, the export market dried up, agricultural credit dried up, farmers were in danger of losing their farms and almost all of the center pivot companies went out of business.

Today only a handful of center pivot companies remain, and the four largest – Valmont, T-L Irrigation, Lindsay Manufacturing, and Reinke Manufacturing – are all based in Nebraska.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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