'Stray Voltage' phenomenon pits Minnesota farmers, utilities

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2013 - 11:57 AM

At least six stray voltage lawsuits are active in Minnesota, pitting farmers against the utilities.

 

The edge creeps into Harlan Poppler’s voice as he talks of watching helplessly while his dairy farm was bled dry and the power company refused to believe that its electricity was slowly killing his herd.

He says it’s hard to pinpoint the worst part, but dissolves into tears when he describes his 5-year-old son pushing a toy tractor across the living room floor, plastic cows piled in its bucket.

“You ask what he’s doing and he says ‘I’m just taking the dead cows out of the barn like Dad does,’ ” said Poppler, who lost a third of the herd on his Waverly farm. “That’s not the way dairy farmers take care of their cattle. It is not OK to drag dead cows out of the barn.”

Poppler’s five-year fight with the Wright Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association is the latest in the decades-long dispute pitting Midwestern farmers against their power companies. As issue is whether stray electrical currents are cutting milk production and ultimately killing dairy cows.

At least six stray voltage lawsuits are active in Minnesota and frustrated ­farmers and their advocates see a recent court ruling in ­Poppler’s favor as a sign that the tide is turning in their direction.

“It’s a major problem and nobody seems to want to fix it,” said state Sen. Bruce Anderson, a Republican from Buffalo who has pushed for legislation to address the situation.

The utilities have countered with research from the 1990s showing that electricity conducted into dairy herds is not significant enough to cause harm to the animals.

“We’re seeing a lot of farmers being put under a lot of stress from the market, and it’s causing them to point the finger somewhere else,” said Daniel Bellig, co-counsel for Wright- Hennepin in the Poppler case.

Toll on annual milk output

In lawsuits and community meetings since the 1980s, farmers have argued that cows become a pathway for ­electrical currents to complete circuits back to substations scattered across farm country.

Essentially, electricity needs to run in a complete circuit. If it can’t return to its source because the lines are in disrepair or overloaded, it runs through the ground via the lines’ grounding rods.

When a dairy farm is in its path, mud, metal milk machines and water troughs conduct the current to the cows, shocking them. Farmers say that causes the animals to drink less water and eat less, and it compromises their immune systems.

In the Poppler case, the electricity was returning through the ground. Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a 2012 jury verdict awarding ­Poppler damages.

However, the case will be sent back to Wright County District Court to more specifically calculate the Popplers’ estimated $700,000 loss.

David Weinand, dairy ­development grants administrator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said stray voltage is a real issue that affects a number of Minnesota farms, but the sources can vary.

At times, rewiring the farm is necessary. Cooperation depends on the utility, he said, but it’s safe to say the companies, like the farmers, want the problem solved.

‘Like a different herd’

  • related content

  • Photo gallery: Stray voltage

    Saturday July 27, 2013

    A recent Court of Appeals ruling over a Wright County farmer’s six-figure jury award after his cows were affected...

  • While his children, left to right, Dani, 7, Shayne, 5, and Brett, 10, played in the milking parlor, dairy farmer Harlan Poppler talked about the many dead cows he has had to carry out of his barns over recent years at Poppler Dairy Farm in Waverly.

  • Not completely trusting the power company’s new lines and new transformer, seen above, Poppler installed an additional isolation transformer on his farm.

  • Most dairy stalls are made of metal, a conductor of electricity.

  • Poppler’s cows appeared relaxed as they were milked last week. Before the stray electric currents were controlled, he said, the heifers would sense voltage, and become skittish and ulimately ill, many times lethally. Utilities say science doesn’t support claims that stray voltage hurts livestock or people.

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