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’
In Poppler’s case, he noticed something was off when his cows bobbed their heads and only lapped lightly at their drinking water.
“Imagine dropping a 9-volt battery in a glass of water and see how badly you want to drink it,” he said.
Wright-Hennepin determined that no stray voltage problem existed, or if it did, it was from defective wiring in Poppler’s buildings.
Poppler rewired but the problems continued.
The problems stopped only when he used an isolation transformer to disconnect from the 1940s-era Wright-Hennepin wire that served his farm, while the company removed the rods that sent the electricity from the wires into the ground.
After the grounding rods were eventually returned by Wright Hennepin to abide by codes, Poppler’s herd problems returned.
The Popplers sued Wright-Hennepin in 2010 and last year a jury found the company liable for negligence, trespass and nuisance, while a judge ordered the company to replace the power line.
Since then, Poppler’s milk output has increased. The mortality rate in his herd dropped from 30 percent to 4 percent.
“It’s like milking a different herd of cows.” he said, wiping his eyes.
Wright-Hennepin appealed the jury award on multiple grounds, including that the Popplers failed to prove that the herd’s exposure to electricity was enough to cause harm, or that the stray voltage caused their health problems.
The Appeals Court sided with the Popplers, but dismissed trespassing damages for the electricity that circulated through the ground.
Both sides have 30 days to decide whether to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear the case.
The ruling was the most high-profile since a 2011 Supreme Court decision that said Zumbro Falls farmers Greg and Harlan Siewert could proceed with their $4 million stray voltage lawsuit against Xcel Energy.
The high court rejected the company’s claims that damages could raise rates and that the issue should be handled by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
The seven-year-old lawsuit was settled that year for an undisclosed amount.
The Siewerts’ attorney, Will Mahler, is now representing six other plaintiffs across Minnesota in similar cases. Xcel is the defendant in two cases, while the others are electric cooperatives.
His first stray voltage case was in 1985, but he saw a resurgence in the early 2000s as aging power lines deteriorated.
It’s affecting more than just farmers’ livelihoods, he said. “It’s really an animal rights issue,” he said. “The effects on these cows are devastating.”
In a statement Saturday, Xcel Energy said safety is a top priority and it follows PUC procedures to investigate stray voltage complaints.
Xcel said it closely monitors research about electrical systems and their effect on the health of people and livestock.
Proposed legislation stalls
A Minnesota House bill introduced in 2011 that would have enacted a state stray voltage task force never took off. In Wisconsin, a proposed bill would ban stray voltage lawsuits against utilities for damages caused by electricity.
Anderson, who proposed the task force legislation after visiting the Poppler farm, initially wanted a bill requiring utilities to update their grids, but received pushback from the companies.
“These utilities have got such a huge legal department that they are basically willing to sacrifice everything with their insurance companies to avoid having to pay out or go forward trying, at least, to fix this outdated electrical system,” he said.
Bellig said the science doesn’t support the claims that stray voltage hurts livestock or people.
“When you get into trial on these stray voltage cases, they amp up the rhetoric,” he said. “Really, utilities are just using the ground as a way to keep electricity flowing, and they try to minimize those levels as much as possible.”
Poppler doesn’t expect to be paid anytime soon, but wants it made clear that the devastation to his farm was real.
“There’s no way we’re ever going to be compensated for what we lost.” he said.