Farmers blame stray voltage for cow deaths

THAMESVILLE, Ont. —Tears came to Patrick Herbert’s eyes, and a choke to his voice, when he revealed the latest victim on his farm.

The cow had recently birthed its second calf. It had since gone off its feed, and it struggled to stand. Its udder and splayed legs seem strangely distorted.

“It gets to you. They all look like that when they’re about to die. There is terror in those eyes. They’re not normal eyes,” Herbert said.

He and his wife, Loretta, blame the problems at their dairy farm on stray voltage.

Stray voltage is extraneous voltage that occurs on grounded surfaces in some buildings. It normally exists at levels too low for humans and animals to detect. However, on some farms it can become high enough for people and animals to feel electrical shocks.

It can be caused by an electrical company’s transformer or by im-proper wiring at the barn or somewhere else on the farm.

The Herberts milk around 30 Holsteins in a tie-stall barn and the cattle are pastured from spring to fall.

They first noticed something was wrong in 2008.

After years of milk quality awards, their somatic cell count jumped, milk production fell and cows began dying for unexplained reasons. They’ve lost 40 mature animals, including eight in the past few months.

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“We’re going to have to (stop dairy farming). Otherwise we’ll go broke,” Herbert said. “It’s been 132 years that we’ve been here.”

He was born into the dairy tradition and has a son, David Elwin, who would like to take over. His family began shipping milk to a local dairy at this southwestern Ontario rural community in 1920. He said his grandmother was renowned for the quality of the butter she churned and sold.

A lack of husbandry skills isn’t an issue. The couple have switched to new feed suppliers, consulted three veterinarians and had their water tested and numerous autopsies conducted.

It was only after eliminating more obvious possibilities that they began to suspect stray voltage.

John Siebert, operations manager for Hydro One in Chatham-Kent and Essex, has been to the farm and sympathizes, but that hasn’t solved the Herberts’ problems.

“He thinks he has stray voltage there. I don’t know if it is or if it isn’t. I know we did some tests to make sure it wasn’t our equipment,” Siebert said. “I’ve seen them (the Herbert cows). It’s terrible. It’s sad. It’s a sad situation.”

Herbert said Hydro One installed a Dairyland Isolater in an attempt to address the issue. He paid $2,500 for the work and signed an agreement not to hold Hydro One liable.

It didn’t help.

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The Herberts have also been working with Lorne Lantz of Lantz Control Systems Inc. and former dairy farmer Lee Montgomery.

Lantz said a good deal of his business revolves around dealing with stray voltage issues on dairy and other large livestock farmers. Montgomery works as a volunteer advocate and said he receives calls concerning stray voltage on a daily basis.

Both men take a dim view of how the stray voltage issue has been dealt with in Ontario.

The province’s energy minister directed the Ontario Energy Board in 2009 to take action “at its own discretion” to deal with stray voltage issue farms. The result, Appendix H, The Stray Voltage Distributor Investigation Procedure, helps in certain cases, but Lantz said it fails to address the larger issue: rural Ontario’s antiquated distribution system.

Lantz said Hydro One and other distributors routinely direct current into the ground.

“They figure the current in the ground is not their problem, but it is their problem … and they don’t do (anything) about it,” he said.

Herbert, at Lantz’s suggestion, is ringing his barn with four-by-10 foot steel plates and a copper wire, buried to within a foot of the soil surface.

The shield installation is designed to isolate the barn from ground current and also allow the voltage to be analyzed.

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Montgomery had similar problems several years ago at his former dairy farm in Chatham-Kent. He said the source was traced to a substation several miles away. The electricity distributor never admitted to the cause, but the problem was eventually fixed, he added.