Voltage problem for dairy cows results in lawsuits, Senate bill
The Iowa Legislature is trying to tackle a shocking bovine problem.
Something known as stray electrical voltage is zapping thousands of the state's dairy cows, giving them jolts that can affect milk production and interfere with breeding schedules.
Farmers and others have known about the problem for decades, but the Legislature this year is taking note because of an onslaught of lawsuits against electric cooperatives.
Some lawmakers want to follow states like Wisconsin, Idaho and Michigan and set science-based standards for addressing the issue in a manner that benefits consumers and utilities alike.
But the plan is drawing criticism from groups who contend that the proposed definition of stray voltage in the bill would essentially eliminate any chance that a farmer could seek legal recourse.
That has created tension between powerful lobby groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.
That conflict publicly festered this week after the Senate started but then abruptly halted debate on the bill, Senate File 2286, so lawmakers could regroup to find an amicable solution for all parties.
"You've got the dairy guys and the Farm Bureau and the trial lawyers against the electric cooperatives," said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who is leading discussion on the bill.
McCoy continued: "I don't want to take away people's adjudication process, but at the same time I think the RECs (rural electric cooperatives) need an operational level of comfort that they have to work within to make sure they're meeting a set standard."
Grounding electrical systems results in some current being absorbed into the earth. When that current reaches levels at which it can affect animals, it's often termed "stray voltage." The problem can be heightened by old and corroded equipment, such as power lines from decades past.
Even low levels of stray voltage can cause dairy cows stress and discomfort. Effects include the loss of 20 percent or more of an animal's milk production and longer intervals between calving, said Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, who is a veterinarian.
Setting specific standards is difficult because some animals are more susceptible to current than others, and conditions -- such as standing on metal vs. earth -- can intensify even the slightest jolt, Seng said.
At least five of Iowa's 36 electric cooperatives have faced lawsuits over the stray voltage issue. The proposed legislation would set guidelines for farmers and electricity providers that would help to more quickly resolve the disputes, said Amy Myers, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.
"The legislation we are pursuing doesn't remove a person's right to sue," Myers said. "What's important is it sets up a process so people can go through, get proper measurements, find the source and take care of it."
Iowans should not be precluded from suing if they have legitimate claims, said Bill Wimmer, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association for Justice.
"Our concern is when you make a definition that puts a standard in, if you don't meet that standard, then it's pretty hard to bring a lawsuit even though there may be damages," Wimmer said.
Cedar County farmer Steve Laezer spent about $30,000 to fix the problem on his dairy farm in 2008. He didn't file a lawsuit against his local electric cooperative because he didn't know who -- or what -- caused the problem.
But Laezer said limiting a farmer's ability to sue could make final resolution more challenging, further increasing production costs.
After the fixes, milk production at his roughly 60-cow operation increased, and calving intervals decreased, he noted.
"I just wanted to get it fixed," Laezer said of his investment in eliminating the stray voltage problem.
Don Petersen, government relations director for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said the group remains opposed to the bill as it is written but believes language can be found to satisfy all parties.
"All the efforts are good and well-intentioned and worth an effort," Petersen said about the bill.