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Original Bi-Rotor Combine to Sell at Auction
Mark Underwood and Ralph Lagergren’s XBR-2 combine – the first Bi-Rotor combine – will sell at auction on the Underwood farm in north-central Kansas on October 29.
The auction will be held to settle Underwood’s estate. The Burr Oak, Kansas, farmer and inventor died last year after a bout with cancer.
Auction details can be found on the Wolters Auction and Real Estate website. The machinery will sell between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., says auctioneer Jim Wolters and includes not only the XBR-2, but also the original Bi-Rotor prototype, a retrofitted International 1480 with a renovated threshing system. Both combines come with extra rotors.
Both machines show signs of wear and tear. A tornado ripped through Underwood’s farm in 2015; a few years prior, a fire devastated the farm shop and manufacturing plant he built in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, interest surrounding this auction is high. “We are privileged for the opportunity to sell it. I know that,” Wolters says.
Underwood was in his teens when he first envisioned a combine-threshing system that used dual rotating concaves. The outside concave moved slower than the inner unit, which proved to be far more efficient and gentler on crops than conventional threshing systems.
He and Lagergren, his cousin, formed a company called Agri-Technology L.P. to test prototypes of the bi-rotor system. The first prototype was a retrofitted International 1480 combine, with the threshing system removed and the bi-rotor system installed. Underwood and Lagergren successfully tested that combine – nicknamed “Whitey” for its unique paint job that featured murals created by a local artist – all over the nation in a number of crops.
They then hired a staff of engineers, welders, and craftsmen to build the XBR-2, a machine designed from the ground up to contain the unique Bi-Rotor system. Agri-Technology L.P. collaborated with Caterpillar on some of the details of the XBR-2, which was built at the then Gordon Piatt Manufacturing near Winfield, Kansas. The prototype combine used a Caterpillar engine and had a Caterpillar track undercarriage. The unit could be removed in less than two hours for maintenance, and the combine itself had 100 moving parts, compared with 225 moving parts in typical machines of the day. The XBR-2 also had a 400-bushel grain tank and used a conveyor unloading system rather than augers to minimize crop damage.
The Bi-Rotor story was chronicled in the book, Dream Reaper, written by Craig Canine in 1995. The book was published before Lagergren and Underwood were able to find a market for the combine. As it turned out, rather than build the Bi-Rotor, Caterpillar opted instead to adapt Claas combines to the U.S. market. Those machines were initially sold as Caterpillar Lexion combines.
The cousins did sell 17 patents to Deere and Company in 1995 for an undisclosed sum, and some Agri-Technology employees worked for Deere for a few years thereafter.
“Some aspects of our technology are part of the new Deere technology, but we won’t ever see the Bi-Rotor as we envisioned,” Lagergren says. “We, together as a team, accomplished something big that most people never get a chance to be a part of.”
During his stint at Deere, Underwood earned company awards and accolades for his work in developing a more efficient feederhouse system. He returned to his Kansas farm in the late 1990s, where he farmed, and performed terrace and waterway dirtwork. He continued to invent and innovate until his death on July 22, 2017. One of those unfinished projects – a self-propelled grain cart – will be sold at the auction.
“Mark and I were the best of friends, even though we were cousins. When hard times came as we struggled to push ahead, it was the friendship and dreaming together that helped us to keep moving forward,” Lagergren says. “We had completely opposite talents, but our dream was exactly the same.”