Cows are dying, and farmers think they know why
In lawsuits filed against utilities, some farmers contend stray voltage from overloaded power lines nearby has killed their cattle. Xcel Energy argues the cow deaths could be blamed on other factors.
By H.J. CUMMINS, Star Tribune
January 7, 2008
As dead cow No. 79 lay stiff in a tractor scoop one recent cold morning on Greg Siewert's dairy farm, it was pretty clear in the nearby sick barn which would become No. 80.
Wobbly on three legs, the fourth swollen and kinked at her side, one cow stared out below stooped shoulders, her black and white coat hanging dull and low from a grim row of ribs.
"It's a slow, painful tortuous death, is what it is for them," said Siewert, who with his father, Harlan, owns Siewert Holsteins in Zumbro Falls. "It's like watching someone die of AIDS."
But Siewert contends it's not disease that's killing his cows. It's electricity. Specifically, it's something called "stray voltage" from a nearby Xcel power line. He has filed a $4 million lawsuit in Wabasha County District Court against Xcel.
The utility, in its legal response, argues that bad farming could be at fault, that cows get sick from bad herd management, improper feed, and a general lack of "cow comfort," as it's described in the dairy world.
Xcel also argues this kind of dispute belongs before utility regulators -- in Minnesota, the Public Utilities Commission -- not in court.
The Siewerts' suit is one of at least six in southern Minnesota -- and one of three against Xcel, the first against the utility in Minnesota since 1992, several attorneys said.
The farmers' suits blame overloaded power lines, some strung 70 years ago that now have to carry power to all the refrigerators, clothes dryers and TVs in houses built since. They also claim new science is on their side. And farmers, with bigger operations and smaller margins, have little choice but to protect against losses of cows or milk production.
Stray voltage is a real phenomenon. New York City, with its aging infrastructure and growing electrical needs, sees the problem often. Consolidated Edison recorded 1,214 incidents of stray voltage in 2005. Among the deaths attributed to it was a woman stepping on a metal plate and a dog standing on wet cement.
On or off the farm, the key question is how much stray voltage is enough to hurt.
Completing the circuit
Dairy farmers complain about two kinds of stray voltage. One is extra spillover from overworked power lines onto the farm's own electrical system, where the two connect. The other, more controversial, is ground current. Electricity needs to run in a complete circuit. If it can't return to its source over the utility's lines -- for ill repair or lack of capacity -- it takes to the earth through the lines' grounding rods.
Some estimates say two-thirds of the current runs back that way. And when a dairy farm stands in its path, the mud, metal milk machines and water troughs conduct the current to the cows, shocking them.
Dairy farmers and utilities have been fighting about stray voltage since the early 1980s, according to Chris Hardie, in the dairy state of Wisconsin, who runs a website on the issue. The first disputes were whether it was even real, and then they became about how much voltage is harmful -- something several government agencies in the mid-1990s set at 1 to 2 volts, Hardie said.
Utilities still cite a 1996 advisory report to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission as the latest, best wisdom. Its authors found "no credible scientific evidence" that ground currents can sicken dairy herds.
As for stray voltage overall, a Minnesota official doesn't see it as a widespread problem.
"Some farmers have experienced stray voltage, but it has also been used for decades as an excuse for issues on the farm," said David Weinand, dairy development grants administrator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
However, since 2004, two state supreme courts have significantly advanced the farmers' cause. In Wisconsin last month, the court granted farmers a long window to sue a utility, recognizing it takes time to determine if stray voltage is causing a herd's problems. In Idaho in 2004, the court denied an Idaho Power Co. appeal of a $17 million judgment against it in a stray-voltage case involving dairy cows.
Scientific developments are also helping farmers. Immunology has advanced enough to explain the connection between electricity and the immune system, said Siewert's attorney, Will Mahler of Rochester.
And lawyers are getting smarter about the science, going behind government studies and challenging the utilities' on-farm test.
Utilities measure at noon, said John Bass, an independent engineer in Minnetonka. But stray voltage peaks during peak electricity demand, because that's when the power lines are carrying the biggest loads, he said. "We always measure at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m."
Still, attorney Barry Hammarback doesn't expect stray voltage cases to pour in, because they take years and farmers need to disprove other culprits for their cows' illnesses.
Five years after dairyman Chuck Untiedt of Lakefield sued Xcel, the case was settled in mediation last month, according to Untiedt's attorney, Richard Diamond of Minnetonka. Terms are confidential.
Persistent disagreements in Minnesota led to the formation in 2005 of the Minnesota Stray Voltage Task Force, a standing group of utilities, state government, and veterinary and dairy industry representatives trying to avoid more lawsuits.
"When most of the litigation comes, it's when the utility has already done what they perceive to be the easiest, clearest fixes, but the farmer says, 'Well, but there's something else going on here,'" Hardie said.
Ruling out other culprits
Greg Siewert filed his suit in 2004.
Siewert, 43, bought his dairy farm in 1990, 5 miles down a country road from the family dairy farm where he grew up.
Over the years, his cows lost weight and gave less milk. They developed chronic mastitis, an infection of the udder. They fell lame, with swollen and tender joints, and they developed ulcers.
The herd of about 350 behaved strangely, too. They were jumpy at the milk machines. And Siewert noticed they didn't slurp water, like cows normally do; they lapped it like a dog.
"My nutritionist kept telling me it can't be the ration, and my vet kept saying it's not an infectious disease," Siewert said.
Finally in 2004, someone suggested stray voltage. Xcel's testing measured its level at 2.2 volts. The utility and Siewert installed equipment, which Siewert said reduced his stray voltage but left enough to keep making his cows sick.
Take cow No. 79. "She laid down yesterday, and couldn't get up. I had to shoot her."
Xcel declined to comment specifically on Siewert's case. But in a general statement, the utility said, "Xcel Energy takes these concerns/complaints very seriously. We will work with the farmer/landowner and do testing as needed to determine if a problem exists, and what the cause of the problem is. If, after testing, it is determined a problem exists, one or a combination of solutions may be implemented."
H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671
Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds stray voltage award
Dec. 6, 2007
(Editor's note: Chris Hardie interviewed James and Grace Gumz in 2000 as the couple battled with stray voltage. To read that story go to Electricity's dirty little secret
By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a nearly $533,000 award to Marathon County dairy farmers who claimed a power company's stray voltage hurt their cows' milk production.
In a 4-to-3 decision, the court rejected arguments made by Northern States Power Co., now doing business as Xcel Energy, that some verdict questions a judge submitted to the jury were in error.
The state's high court said no errors were made.
The court also ruled in favor of Clark County dairy farmers in a stray voltage case, sending it back to lower court for a trial.
In the Marathon County case, James and Michael Gumz of rural Athens said they began noticing physical and behavioral problems in their herd in 1991, 10 years after they bought their parents' dairy farm. The problems included cow deaths and poor milk production.
The problems persisted, and in 1996 they asked Northern States Power to conduct tests for stray voltage.
Stray voltage is electricity that leaks from a utility's electrical distribution system or farm wiring. Some utility companies argue stray voltage isn't a problem, while some farmers claim it hurts cows' health.
The power company said its tests showed the ``cow contact voltage'' was below the ``level of concern.''
However, an independent electrical tester hired by the farmers determined that stray voltage from the power company's distribution system was coming onto the farm.
The Gumzes sued in 2001 and were awarded $332,336 by a Marathon County jury for lost milk production and lost market value of their cows and $200,000 for ``annoyance'' and loss of use and enjoyment of their property.
An appeals court upheld the ruling, which the Supreme Court affirmed Thursday. The high court said the Gumzes' action was not barred under the state's six-year statute of limitations because they showed reasonable diligence in investigating the cause of damage to their herd.
But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Annette Ziegler said evidence suggested the Gumzes should have known about the problem's cause earlier and the statute of limitations applied. She also said the jury should have been allowed to consider more evidence related to whether poor farm management was at least partially to blame for the cows' health.
The Gumzes were pleased with the decision and happy to have the case over with, said Greg Cook, one of their attorneys.
``I'm hoping in the future, the utilities will wake up and realize it's a lot cheaper to fix these problems than fight them in court,'' Cook said.
The power company's attorney, J. Drew Ryberg, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
In the other case, the Supreme Court ruled that a Clark County Circuit Court should have let a lawsuit brought by dairy farmers Ralph and Karline Schmidt proceed to trial.
The Schmidts claimed that stray voltage from Northern States Power was to blame for problems they saw in their dairy cows as far back as the late 1970s. An electrician hired by the farmers concluded there was a stray voltage problem.
The circuit court ruled that the six-year statute of limitations had expired since the Schmidts knew about the stray voltage problem in 1993 but didn't bring the lawsuit until 2001.
The Supreme Court, in upholding an appeals court decision, said it was not clear when the Schmidts knew for certain that stray voltage was the problem and therefore it was wrong for the lower court to rule in favor of the power company before considering evidence at a trial.
Stray voltage has been an issue for dairy farmers statewide since the early 1980s, prompting dozens of lawsuits against power companies.
Four years ago, the state Supreme Court upheld $1.2 million in damages to a New London dairy couple from Milwaukee-based We Energies. The couple claimed stray voltage from an underground cable installed next to their farm in 1977 caused their herd's problems. The utility contended there was no science showing animals can be harmed from ground currents.