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Ask the experts: Stray voltage legislation

Contributor Karma Metzler Fitzgerald Published on 29 March 2012

Iowa’s legislators have put a proposal to regulate stray voltage on hold – at least for the time being.

According to an article in the Des Moines Register, the legislation would have set “science-based” standards for addressing stray voltage, which happens when electric currents build up in the ground and can lead to reproductive and other health problems in dairy cattle.

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While the bills made it through committees on both sides of the Statehouse, the proposals have stalled before making it to the floor in either the House or Senate. Dairy lobbyists claim the bills would make it nearly impossible to seek payment for damages caused by the stray voltage.

According to the article, Idaho, Michigan and Wisconsin have already made similar legislation law.

Iowa’s legislation has been put on the proverbial back burner and could potentially still be brought to the floor for formal debate. The legislative session is scheduled to end mid-April and the bills could remain in play until the session ends. No one really knows when or if that might happen.

For this edition of "Ask the experts," we asked if legislation was the best way to handle the issue of stray voltage.

Our panel of experts included:

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Chuck Untiedt
Dairyman
Udder Chaos Inc.
Stray voltage consultant

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Michel Montreuil
Vice President of Technology
Agrivolt

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Jerry Lush
Stray Voltage Consulting

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Don Petersen
Director of Governmental Relations
Iowa Farm Bureau Federation
(no photo available)

Here were the questions we asked. Click a link to jump directly to that question and the responses received.




Q. Is legislation an effective way to combat stray voltage?

UNTIEDT: Legislation may be effective if it truly protects those affected and requires correction of concerns. It also needs to allow the producer to protect all of their animals and not exclude the most sensitive and least resistive animals.

I really feel that all that is needed is a sincere desire to cooperate and work together to quickly correct the concerns of the affected producer, be it dairy or other operation.

MONTREUIL: Legislation, as it exists today, is not the best way to combat stray voltage. This is because existing legislation is based on protocol of measurements and recommendations that are apart from the reality of the electrical network of a livestock farm of today. Our farms today typically are using huge quantities of power, therefore generating huge quantities of return current on the grounding network. Economically efficient equipment such as variable speed drives, energy saving florescent lighting and other sophisticated equipment reduce operating cost; however, this equipment also generates a substantial amount of electrical noise (stray voltage).

Stray voltage becomes an issue on a livestock facility when the total amount of this unwanted current exceeds the threshold of what can be tolerated by the livestock. The source of stray voltage can be either "on-farm" or "off-farm" and it is the total of these sources that will define the total stray voltage on a livestock facility.

PETERSON: It's in everyone's best interests to facilitate communication between dairy farmers and utility providers, regardless of the situation. It's difficult to create a "one-size-fits-all" solution to this issue.

As with any ag production issue, whether a farmer is feeding or breeding or milking livestock, working with other entities is a function of management from day one. It's important for farmers to work with service providers to discuss potential situations and concerns and take a proactive approach.

From our point of view, we feel that it is much more successful for farmers to seek out expert opinions and look for opportunities to communicate directly with utility providers when addressing the issue of stray voltage.

LUSH: There will always be someone who will not agree with any stray voltage legislation that might be passed. It might be too strict or not strict enough. What values would be used and why? There are cases that have gone to court, or a producer had to quit milking, which might have not happened if there had been legislation. How do you come up with effective legislation?

My personal feeling is that legislation is not an effective way to combat stray voltage. I have conducted more than 500 stray voltage investigations over the last 30 years. These investigations on dairy farms have led me to believe that lower voltage levels than those shown by university research are a problem with the cows on the farms. I have also found other situations that research would say are not a problem which do affect cows on farms. The farms I have conducted investigations on and lowered voltages that should not have been a problem are pleased with the results and have had better performance from the cows.

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Q. If yes, what elements does the most effective legislation contain?

UNTIEDT: Of the state programs, I believe Vermont has one of the most effective programs and it is not a legislative act but rather a "Voluntary Program for the Control of Stray Voltage on Farms."

It clearly states: "correctly defined it should be referred to as stray current" because it is the current that affects the animal, not the voltage.

It allows isolation at a low level of neutral-to-earth voltage at the transformer ground and allows the isolation to be maintained as long as the operation is in use. It recognizes that cows have widely varying resistance and sensitivity. It recognizes that cows may be affected by as little as 0.2 volts.

Quoting the document I received from Dan Scruton at the Vermont Department of Ag: "The Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets, through the Milk Quality Enhancement Program (MQEP), has adopted a policy that if a cow can feel the voltage, it is a potential problem and should be corrected. The MQEP has found that when more than .5 volts of neutral-to-earth voltage is found in the barn, improvement in animal behavior and milk production is often noted after it is removed. The general rule of thumb used by MQEP is, if you can find .5 volts and at least .5 milliamperes of current present in a cow contact area it needs to be corrected. If the contact is direct and sensitive, such as a metal watering bowl to floor, .2 volts may be a problem that the farmer would need to resolve."

It also addresses transient voltages.

Scruton has stated that since implementation of this voluntary program, in 1995, they have not had any concerns develop because of the isolation of the farms, as long as proper isolation procedures are followed.

MONTREUIL: If we are to correctly measure stray voltage on today’s dairies, the source(s) must first be defined, correct measurements of each source must be taken that are based on known electrical laws and the total leakage current (stray voltage) must be established. All measurements should be professionally conducted with supporting documentation – this is key.

If legislation can be written that embraces the above concepts, then there would be a benefit for such legislation in our industry.

LUSH: Any legislation would very likely use research results for making legislation. People would use the legislation as justification for going with the legislated procedures and values and would use them as a reason for not taking action when the cows may be having problems. Again, there will always be someone who will not agree with legislation.

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Q. If not, where does it rank in terms of other effective options?

UNTIEDT: I believe sincere cooperation is the best approach for everyone concerned.

LUSH: The most effective option would be to work with a stray voltage professional willing to work with both the producer and the utility involved. Hopefully, the producer and utility would be willing to work together to solve stray voltage problems. I know this has not always happened and that is why legislation is being considered.

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Q. Are there any programs or states that seem to be succeeding in combating stray voltage more than others?

UNTIEDT: See the Vermont program as stated above. We have had excellent cooperation from a number of utilities in quite a few states and have found as long as everyone faithfully works together to correct the farmer’s concerns quickly, it is a win-win for everyone concerned. I truly believe that the vast majority of those experiencing concerns just want them resolved peacefully and quickly.

MONTREUIL: Certainly there are some states that have taken a proactive approach in recognizing the importance of the stray voltage issue to the dairy industry but we know of no programs that have been successful in combating stray voltage concerns.

LUSH: I think there has been a large success with the stray voltage program in Wisconsin. I am not aware of all that is involved with their legislation. I believe that the legislation was coupled with a program that provided grant money to producers to upgrade/update their farm’s electrical wiring. This should have improved the stray voltage situation tremendously. I am not aware of possible programs in other states.

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Q. How can producers get involved?

UNTIEDT: Communication and education are the keys to resolving this.

Producers should use articles like these, the Internet and communication with those that have experienced stray current concerns to educate themselves and then encourage their dairy farm organizations to help them as well.

Some producers have formed groups where they informally discuss their concerns and also write to their elected officials to make sure they are aware of the concerns. We have to keep in mind what a small percentage of the population we are speaking of, and our elected officials may not have any knowledge of the concerns.

We work with the utilities, the farmers' electricians and equipment suppliers to correct and reduce concerns to levels far below what some feel are not affecting the cows and we most generally see improvements in the performance of the animals. By keeping the concerns to a minimum, you can help prevent a concern from growing into something far more serious. Most concerns start out small and continue to worsen over time and we look at this approach as a preventative method of lessening the potential for larger concerns.

Each farmer should be able to set his or her own level of acceptable risk and manage their operation to achieve that level – the same as you would with a biosecurity program for disease prevention. There are various methods to do this and through cooperation we can truly lower the risk of a concern developing.

New technologies used on the farms can also create concerns not being captured by traditional meters and more sophisticated meters are needed to show these concerns.

MONTREUIL: The producers should understand that stray voltage is a parameter that needs to be monitored and managed. It should also be understood that the electrical network on a dairy will change on a daily basis, influenced by adding equipment, malfunctioning equipment, faulty wiring, electrical faults or "off-farm" influence, all of which can affect the level of stray voltage.

In our view, consistent monitoring of the electrical network on our modern dairies is just as important as other management responsibilities.

LUSH: Producers would need to contact their legislators about their concerns with proposed legislation, personally and through their farm organizations. PD

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Related resources:
Ask the experts: Stray voltage
Leakage current: Don’t let stray voltage shock your cows
Stray voltage testing: Who can you trust?
Lessons learned in stray voltage

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