Harlan PopplerWaverly, Minn.
Harlan Poppler
Waverly, Minn.
WAVERLY, Minn. - A Wright County jury ruled in favor of dairy farmer Harlan Poppler, his wife, Jennifer, and her father, Roy Marschall, on March 19 when they found Wright-Hennepin Electrical Cooperative 100 percent negligent in a case involving stray voltage. As a result, the Popplers and Marschall were awarded $750,000.
This verdict closed one chapter in the Popplers' six-year battle with stray voltage on their 200-cow dairy farm near Waverly, Minn.
The Popplers first noticed something amiss with their cattle in 2006.
"We had the signs [of stray voltage] but never realized what it was," Harlan Poppler said.
Mastitis, foot problems and DAs were among the issues, and nothing the Popplers did seemed to help. In 2008, they lost 30 cows to the effects of stray voltage.
New wiring throughout the dairy barn, installing isolation transformers on the farm and lifting the grounding off the power lines only lightened the problem. A hired stray voltage consultant pinpointed the problem not to the farm, but to the power line bringing electricity onto the farm.
"He assured me that nothing was wrong on the farm but that the power line [coming into the farm] was inadequate," Poppler said.
The power line, built in 1947, is part of 400 miles of copper weld 8a and 6a wiring in Wright-Hennepin's system. A majority of the problems regarding these lines are in the old steel and copper conductors that were left over from World War II, said Barry Hammarback of Hammarback Law Office in River Falls, Wis., who represented the Popplers in the case. These conductors, he said, are very high resistance and tend to crack, causing even more resistance. Current running through these high-resistance conductors creates more voltage.
"The USDA Rural Utilities Service had recommended that these conductors be removed years ago," Hammarback said.
Wright-Hennepin, however, didn't follow that recommendation. Poppler said he had been in contact with Wright-Hennepin to put in a new three-phase power line to his farm, willing to pay for the $103,000 project himself. When the cooperative did not act on his request, Poppler filed a lawsuit against them.
"I wanted compensation for my losses," he said.
An investigation for the case found that of the current coming into the farm on the line, only 20 percent was returning on the neutral wire; 80 percent was going into the ground.
"What happened was the electricity was being dumped right into the ground in front of my dairy barn, using the earth as a ground," Poppler said.
Hammarback said the jury found Wright-Hennepin had created a nuisance to the Popplers; the utility was negligent for not upgrading the power line and endangering the Popplers' cows by trespass onto their property.
The next step in the case is determining what to do about the problem. Currently, Hammarback said they have motions in front of the court to make Wright-Hennepin rebuild the old line. In the meantime, Wright-Hennepin may appeal the case.
While he waits to see what will happen, Poppler is hoping to reach out to neighboring farmers who may be dealing with similar circumstances. Until the power line is taken care of, his cows remain in the same conditions they have been in for the last six years - with stray voltage running through the barn.
"This dairy is going to take years to try to get back to normal," Poppler said. "I lost some extremely good cows, and I will never get them back."
The Popplers' situation is not a new one to Hammarback, who has handled over 150 stray voltage cases.
"While the individual farms are quite different, the circumstances are pretty much the same," he said. "They usually involve old and aging lines that haven't been upgraded or updated. If dealing with a cooperative, they don't have any real standards in dealing with stray voltage, and the utilities don't bother to talk to their dairy customers about what they would like done concerning stray voltage."
For those who think they may have a stray voltage problem, Hammarback said the first step is to watch your cows and look for any abnormal behaviors.
"You are definitely the best judge of your own animals," he said. "Watch your animals and listen to what they tell you. They are never wrong."
He also said to keep looking for electricity even if the utility says there is not a problem, as the levels that affect animals have been found to be much lower than most utilities claim. From there, hire an independent consultant that knows stray voltage and do a thorough test to determine what is going on.