Wisconsin farmer wins stray voltage case against Xcel Energy

Wisconsin State Farmer
The manure fed into the  proposed anaerobic digester would come from an estimated 20,000 cattle housed at nine dairy farms in Brown County.

GALESVILLE - A western Wisconsin farmer could be awarded up to $13.5 million after winning a five-year legal battle against an electric services company over stray voltage.

Paul Halderson told the La Crosse Tribune that his dairy farm herd of nearly 1,000 cows dealt with illness and decreased milk production for more than a decade because of Xcel Energy's improperly grounded power lines.

Current that leaks from neutral wires in the ground are referred to as stray voltage. Animals can receive small shocks when they come into contact with a grounded object, such as a watering trough. Research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that it can cause cattle to avoid eating, become stressed and produce less milk.

The lawsuit said Northern States Power Company, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, found excessive voltage in one of Halderson's barns in 1996 but failed to report it. Halderson hired a consultant in 2011 and found that the high levels of electricity were coming from the utility's distribution system. 

Xcel Energy installed equipment to reduce stray voltage in 2011.

"It's like night and day," Halderson said in a statement released by his attorney. "When we had stray voltage, we could never get the production we wanted and the cows were struggling with health problems. Now it seems effortless. Production is way up and the cows are doing great."

The utility said it didn't detect harmful currents where the cows were located and that the farm's dairy production issues were a result of difficulties in the dairy industry such as bad feed, disease and inadequate veterinary care.

A Trempealeau County jury found the company was negligent and didn't follow state regulations, causing Halderson nearly $4 million in losses.

The jury awarded Halderson about $4.5 million, but the court may triple that amount because the company was found in willful, wanton or reckless violation of statutes.

Xcel Energy spokeswoman Christine Ouellette said the company is disappointed by the decision but looking into the next steps.