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Battling the unseen enemy

Alisa Anderson Published on 19 November 2009

Stray voltage can be an unseen enemy to the dairy farmer. The fact that it is unseen is partly what can make it so devastating.

Cows can feel lower currents of stray voltage than humans can. The shock stresses them, causing illness and a drop in production and reproduction. When stray voltage is diagnosed as a problem, it is important to fix the sources of stray voltage as quickly as possible. But if farmers don’t know what to do or who to turn to for help, they stand the chance of losing their livelihood.

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Chuck Untiedt had been a successful dairy farmer for most of his life. Then in 1999, things started to fall apart at his 350-cow farm. His somatic cell count, which had been below 100,000, began to climb. Production dropped. Cases of mastitis and other diseases increased. Untiedt lost 600 cows to illness and other complications from 1995 to 2002, and for awhile he didn’t know what was wrong.

“It was just like we’d forgotten how to be the dairymen we’d been all our lives,” Untiedt says. Untiedt did everything that he knew how to do, and finally discovered that the problems stemmed from stray voltage in his new freestall barn. But even after he had discovered the problem, he struggled to find electricians or engineers who knew enough about stray voltage to help him.

Finding help
Untiedt was eventually able to find people who could help him, but he had to gather together a lot of information and figure some things out on his own, too. Now that he has successfully grappled with his own stray voltage problem, he offers his knowledge and a helping hand to other dairy farmers who don’t know who to turn to for help. He has traveled a lot and donated many hours to help them.

“I’ve been told that I should sell my information to people. I can’t do that. I like to help people. I’m not in it for the dollars. I guess I’m just in it mostly for the cows. I hate to see animals getting stressed out and damaged from something we can prevent,” Untiedt says. Untiedt found that it takes cooperation from many people to face stray voltage.

“I think if we get more cooperation from everybody on it, hopefully we’ll be able to get more problems solved quicker,” he says.

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Over time Untiedt has built a network of knowledgeable people who helped him solve his stray voltage problems, and on which he now relies to help solve others’ problems. In 2005, the Waseca Chamber of Commerce Agricultural Committee in Wisconsin formed a stray voltage task force to address the growing concern in the area. Untiedt has been involved with this task force and has used it as a resource in his work with other dairymen. Hugh Chester-Jones, a professor of dairy nutrition at the University of Minnesota, is the chairman of the task force.

“My role is to be a resource for farmers to find somebody who can address their situations. I do get a lot of calls,” Chester-Jones says. “The task force is basically to keep people aware of some of the concerns of the dairy farmers. I think one of the biggest things we can do is to document each of the farms and what the problem was and how the problem was resolved. By having that documented, then we can help each other around the state and the area.”

Involving the utility company
Sometimes the sources of stray voltage are not the dairy producer’s problem. It is something that the utility company needs to address. One of Untiedt’s goals is to help dairy producers communicate and build relationships with utility companies.

“We’ve been getting really good cooperation from some of the utilities too, and that’s what is needed. It’s got to be a common effort to get these things solved,” Untiedt says. Untiedt has found that the dairy producer doesn’t always know how to communicate the problem to the utility company. Electricity can be complex and difficult to understand or talk about. But it is important that the producer communicates with the utility so they can get the problem fixed.

“When I’ve seen issues go poorly between utilities and dairies, oftentimes there’s too long a time period between when a concern is suspected and when good, open communication begins between the dairy operator, the electrician and the utility. Get that dialogue started early. Get it addressed before you have systemic problems throughout the herd,” says Don Marker, manager of Sioux Valley Electric (SVE) in South Dakota.

But Marker also believes that utility companies sometimes need to improve how they help dairy farmers. Ted Smith from SVE works with dairy farmers and at times has been a mediator between the utility and the farmer.

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“The first and most important thing is talking to the farmer, going out there and not starting out with a defensive or antagonistic attitude. But it’s a two-way street there. If they call up and the first thing they say is, ‘Your crap is causing us problems,’ well, you’re going to kind of be on your guard before you even get out there,” Smith says.

After communication barriers are down, dairy producers need immediate professional help from utilities to correct the problem, but sometimes that is difficult for utilities to provide.

“I think the electricians and utilities need more training on what stray voltage actually is. It’s not common knowledge on how it works and why it happens, so a lot of times the utility engineers don’t understand the problem either. It takes quite a lot of training and experience to understand the reasons for the stray voltage and what can be accomplished to mitigate it,” says Don Johnson, an electrical engineer from Wyoming.

Two heads are better than one
Stray voltage is stressful, especially when there seems to be no one that can help. Without help, a farmer may lose his dairy because of the losses stray voltage can cause, as Kenneth and Gloria Reed did. So other dairy producers don’t have to go through the same frustration, Kenneth now works with Untiedt to successfully help other dairymen save their farms.

“I would have given anything a year ago March to have two men like that. It takes an experience to get the knowledge, because an electrician doesn’t even understand it,” Gloria says. PD

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