Even before the first patent on center pivot technology ran out, Valley Manufacturing (later named Valmont Industries) had competitors. Lawsuits often followed, but the competition pushed innovation forward.
The Raincat. By 1959, an Australian company had modified the basic Valley approach and produced a center pivot system called the Grasslands. It featured many innovations that would become the standards for the industry in the future – the machine had electric motors to drive it (rather than water drive ones) and a truss system under each pipe span to bow and support the pipe (rather than overhead cables). A California pump manufacturer Layne and Bowler brought the system to America, put rubber tires on it and renamed it the Raincat. But California farmers didn’t need center pivots as badly as farmers on the Plains. So, the company went through several ownership changes, eventually landing in Greeley, Colorado. Raincat went out of business in the early 1980s.
Reinke. Richard Reinke was a Nebraska farmer’s son who taught himself to be an engineer and draftsman. In 1954, he started Reinke Manufacturing in Deshler, Nebraska, and introduced his first center pivot system in 1966. To avoid infringing on Valley’s patents, Reinke had to come up with new ideas, and he did. He was the first to make his electric drive systems reversible, so that a farmer could back the system up. He was the first to put his electric motors in the middle of each tower base and connect drive shafts to the gearboxes on each wheel. He was the first to patent the “bow-string” truss system under the pipe spans that most pivots use now. He was the first to use a electrical “collector ring” to transfer power from the pivot point down the spans so that a wire wouldn’t wrap up as the pivot went around and have to be unwrapped after each revolution. In all, he patented over 30 innovations for center pivot designs. Richard Reinke died in 2003 at the age of 80, but his company is still operating in Deshler. They’ve diversified into building trailers and chassis equipment for over-the-road trucks.
Lindsay. Lindsay Manufacturing is based in the small Nebraska town of the same name where Paul Zimmerer and his two sons set up shop in 1958. First, they made tow-line irrigation systems. Ten years later, they came out with their first center pivot system under the name “Zimmatic.” Because the terrain around Lindsay was hilly they introduced a “uni-knuckle” joint at each tower instead of the ball-joint that other builders used. This allowed the Zimmatic to move over very rough hills and valleys. They also used an external collector ring – instead of Reinke’s internal ring – to transfer electrical power down the system. The company grew fast, and in 1974 the Zimmerers sold out to DeKalb AgResearch. But the family continued to operate the firm. Finally in 1988, the company again went independent through an over-the-counter stock offering. Today, Lindsay is the largest exporter of center pivot systems and pushing Valmont for overall market share.
T-L Irrigation. Leroy Thom was a Hastings, Nebraska, area farmer who had tried his hand at everything from custom combining to irrigation engineering. In 1969, he and his two sons Dave and Jim decided they could improve on the other center pivot designs by using hydraulic motors on each tower. Hydraulics would enable their systems to move around the field at a constant rate rather than starting and stopping at set intervals. The company claims that their systems are more reliable, can be fixed by farmers who are used to hydraulic systems and apply water more evenly. Today, T-L Irrigation employs over 250 people in Hastings.
Lockwood Corporation actually started in 1935 in Gering, Nebraska, to produce potato-farming equipment. In 1969, they decided to get into the irrigation business and bought a small Texas firm that was making the “Hydro-Cycle” pivot system. They moved the operation to Gering and completely redesigned the system. They became one of the five largest manufacturers of center pivot systems. In the late 1990s, the company went through ownership changes and is now known as Universal Irrigation Company, although the systems are still marketed under the Lockwood brand name.
Other Innovators. Over the years, there have been over 80 individuals or companies who have tried to make and sell center pivot systems. Some of the smaller companies were bought by the giants. For instance, when Valmont realized that farmers saw an advantage in the undertruss system to support the spans, they bought out a small company in Grant, Nebraska, that was building an undertruss system.
Other small companies started up, fought for market share for a while and migrated to other businesses.
Kroy. In York, Nebraska, a car dealer named Paul Geis had a small business making irrigation pipe and began making center pivot systems in 1968. He marketed the systems under the name of “Kroy” – York spelled backward. But his compressed air drive system didn’t really catch on. Geis sold the center pivot business to a well driller in Sidney, Nebraska, who quit business in the late 1970s. Geis continued to manufacture aluminum and PVC pipes and fittings for industry, construction and other irrigation methods.
Oasis. Just down the road from York in Henderson, well driller Gus Thieszen took his own chance in the center pivot business in the late 1960s. Thieszen brought out his “Oasis” model center pivot then, but the system never really caught on. He stopped manufacturing the system after only a few years. He was one of scores of ag innovators who tested the market and had to fold up their enterprise.
Pivots Go Worldwide. Today, only six center pivot manufacturing companies are left, and the four largest – Valmont, Lindsay, Reinke, and T-L – are in Nebraska. On this “Then & Now” page, today’s center pivot market is outlined.
Also, Robert Daugherty (left) remembers how the worldwide market for Valmont pivots just seemed to develop as news of the innovation spread around the agricultural community. The other manufacturers saw similar interest, but worldwide markets challenged some of the smaller manufacturers.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.