A Galesville farmer has won his five-year legal battle against Xcel Energy over stray voltage that he says harmed his cattle and could result in a record $13.5 million award.
A jury this week found that Xcel was negligent and failed to follow state regulations, causing more than $4 million in losses for Paul Halderson and his wife, Lyn, who operate a nearly 1,000-cow dairy.
The Haldersons claimed their herd suffered from illness and decreased milk production for more than a decade because of improperly grounded power lines.
In total, the Trempealeau County jury awarded the Haldersons about $4.5 million, which the court is required to triple in cases such as this where a jury finds willful, wanton or reckless violation of statutes.
That would be the largest stray voltage award in Wisconsin history and likely the second largest in the nation, said Halderson’s attorney Barry Hammarback of River Falls, Wis.
“It really was quite a vindication,” Hammarback said, noting that the Haldersons had to endure accusations they were sub-standard farmers.
Paul Halderson, a longtime member of the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau school board, said he would rather have avoided the lawsuit but was relieved to get compensation for a problem that began as early as 1993.
“It was a long struggle,” he said. “I wish that we didn’t have to go through this to get this.”
Xcel spokeswoman Christine Ouellette said the company was “disappointed” by the verdict and is “evaluating the next steps.”
The term stray voltage refers to current that leaks from neutral wires into the earth. Animals that come into contact with a grounded object — such as a watering trough — can receive small shocks. This can cause dairy cattle to avoid eating, become stressed and generally produce less milk, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission established guidelines in 1996 for acceptable levels of stray voltage for utility service, although a farm or home’s own wiring can also be the source, said Doug Reinemann, professor and chair of biological systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“It’s typically some of each,” Reinemann said. “There’s always some coming from each side.”
According to the Haldersons’ suit, NSP found excessive voltage in one of their barns beginning in 1996 but failed to report it. In 2011, the Haldersons hired a consultant who found high levels of electricity and concluded it was coming from the utility’s distribution system.
The suit claimed this led to reduced milk production and the loss of $5.8 million in profits between 2004 and 2011 when Xcel installed equipment designed to reduce stray voltage.
Hammarback said after new equipment was installed, the cows’ reproduction rates nearly doubled, mortality plummeted and overall production increased by 5 million pounds of milk per year.
“It’s like night and day,” Haldeson 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.”
Also named in the suit was Star Blends LLC, which the Haldersons said provided bad feed in June 2011 — shortly after Xcel installed equipment to address the stray voltage — that killed some of their cows and left others sick. The Sparta feed company settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Xcel countered that the Halderson’s claim “teeters on the false premise that their herd should have produced milk at levels exceeding state and local averages.”
The utility claims “no one detected harmful currents” where cows were present and says Halderson’s problems resulted from his expansion during difficult times for the dairy industry, bad feed, disease and inadequate veterinary care, and poor conditions for the cattle.
Arctic View expanded its operation in 2001 and 2005, growing the herd from around 200 cows to more than 900. Xcel says it tested for stray voltage each time new wiring was installed and did not find significant levels.