When Stray Voltage Strikes
When the Nelson family, at Olmar Farms, moved their 150-cow registered Holsteins into their new facility, Jill Nelson says the easy-going, high-producing cows quickly settled into their tunnel-ventilated, sand-bedded freestall barn.
It was spring of 2010, and everything was going well. At the time, the family’s herd boasted a rolling herd average of 26,192 lb. of milk, 940 lb. of fat and 923 lb. of protein.
“Our BAA (breed age average) was one of the top five in Minnesota and one of the top 40 in the U.S.,” Nelson recalls.
Most of the Nelsons’ cows had been born on the farm, with genetics dating back to 1944, the year their registered Holstein herd was established.
But life on the farm, based near Sleepy Eye, Minn., took a 180-degree downturn one day in April 2011.
“We had a brownout; our lights and motors and anything else electrical were strobing on and off. It was like being at a disco,” Nelson says. “And then we lost power.”
Almost overnight, the once docile cows turned anxious and difficult to milk. A handful were even dangerous.
“I had to tie their legs together. I felt it wasn’t safe to milk some of them,” she says.
What the Nelsons say they didn’t realize at the time was they had just experienced the sudden build up of electrical charge on their equipotential plane, contributing to a phenomenon called stray voltage.
Small Volts, Big Problems
Stray voltage is defined by USDA as “small voltage, less than 10 volts, that can be measured between two points that can be simultaneously contacted by an animal (or person).”
People often experience stray voltage as a low-level electric shock when they touch metal or water and consider it a minor nuisance.
Livestock can have a much more negative reaction. That was true for the Nelsons’ cowherd.
Nelson says some of the family’s cows reacted negatively to levels of stray voltage below 0.5 volts. They would kick when being milked and were reluctant to enter the parlor area. Mastitis, which had not been a problem before, flared into multiple, relentless cases. Animals were off feed and hesitant to consume water.
“They never stuck their nose in and drank water. They’d splash and lick and bob their heads. They’d walk over to a puddle of urine and suck it dry,” Nelson recalls. “I’d never seen anything like that.”
Cows would fall and be unable, or unwilling, to get up.
“Muscle weakness and immune dysfunction stumped our vet and management team,” Nelson recalls. “I’d wake up to dead cows that the day before seemed healthy as could be. You could see they had dropped dead in the spot where they had been standing.
“I had one die right in front me just after she gave 70 lb. of milk,” Nelson adds. “She was the best cow I’d ever bred. It was my son’s cow. That broke me.”
The farm’s calf crops also suffered from the effects of stray voltage, Nelson says. She lists birth defects, heart issues, incomplete digestive tracts, heart murmurs and poor responses to vaccinations and treatments as a handful of the issues affecting the family’s calves.
Nelson says she and her husband, Brian, thought the problem might be stray voltage, as there had been some concerns while they were still using their older milking barn. Still, repeated checks by their power company said otherwise.
“We had the utility company out multiple times, and their testing methods said we didn’t have it,” she says. “There wasn’t a thing we could do to fix a problem that was being caused by the primary side of our electrical service.”
Heartache And Hope
By 2016, the Nelsons had battled the problem of stray voltage for eight years — despite enlisting help from veterinarians, nutritionists, electricians and other experts — and had no solution.
“I told my husband, ‘We either need to figure this out, or we can’t do this anymore,’” Nelson says. “Financially, we were in ruins and had no options.”
That’s when a Minnesota veterinarian Nelson had met pointed her to a master electrician who knew how to address stray voltage.
“He came out and tested almost three full days and found stray voltage in all facilities, even in the unheated waterers,” Nelson says. “He said the problem was definitely coming from the utilities.”
Nelson says the electrician explained to the utility company what the problem was and how they could fix it.
“We had to get an isolated transformer and bring three-phase electricity to the farm,” she says. “The utility company installed it but wouldn’t pay for it. We had to pay almost $100,000 to get that done.”
In February 2017, the farm was finally up and running on the new transformer. But Nelson says problems persisted. The master electrician returned and found the utility company had installed the wrong transformer. That took several more weeks to resolve, during which Nelson says more cows died.
Finally, in May 2017, the Nelsons began to see their herd start to recover from the impacts of stray voltage, but the effects from it still linger today.
“The cows that were here were ruined by the voltage. Most of them we cleared out, because they just never recovered,” Nelson says. “We don’t have any old cows anymore. We used to have 12-year-old cows often. Our oldest cow now is 7, and they’ll never make 12 because they won’t be profitable.”
Still, the Nelsons’ younger cows are flourishing. The farm’s milking herd now averages 28,509 lb. of milk, 1,157 lb. of fat and 923 lb. of protein on twice a day milking.
Eventually, the Nelsons sued the electrical association to recover some of their losses. After two years passed, including 11 days in the courtroom, the utility company made a financial offer to settle, Nelson says.
“We are so thankful to our bankers and the feed company for sticking with us. We were into them in a big way. It was bad,” she says.
Nelson also cites her faith for helping her through.
More information about the Nelson family’s experience with stray voltage and informational resources are available at strayvoltagefacts.com.