Farmers push for change to protect farm animals against stray voltage


by Larry Davis, Director, OFA

Electricity is an essential service for all of us, but for decades, livestock farmers in rural Ontario have been struggling with a devastating side effect of that service that affects both people and animals.

It’s called stray voltage and livestock exposed to even low levels of electrical current may experience tingling sensations that impact their behaviour and health. For dairy cows, for example, this means nervousness, uneven milk production, increases in inflammation including in their udders, and being reluctant to eat their feed or drink water. In severe cases, cows become sterile or even die as a result.

For farmers, although this represents a loss of income, the biggest impact is on their emotional and mental health. No farmer wants to see their animals suffer and for some Ontario farmers, their inability to resolve this issue has led them to exit livestock production altogether.

Stray voltage or ground current is a phenomenon that is often highly misunderstood and misidentified and it can happen because of the way our electricity distribution system is designed and operated.

On the farm, ground tests for stray voltage show the problem is often caused by levels of current lower than one volt which humans can’t feel but animals can. Unfortunately, current legislation places the threshold for utilities to take action at one-volt or higher, which means it is difficult for farmers to work with the electrical sector to find solutions.

I farm in Brant County and we had this exact experience on our own dairy farm. Testing showed the farm was in compliance with the electrical code, so we kept investing more money into improvements like better equipment, better stalls and better feed to help the cows be healthier and more productive. Nothing worked and with no other solutions, I ultimately switched to other types of farming. Today, we know that the problems the cows were having came from stray voltage, and that many farmers and their livestock have faced similar challenges for decades.

As an Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) Board member, I brought this initiative forward several years ago, after which a committee was created to push for a solution. This committee consists of commodity groups, and experts in both the electrical and veterinary fields. For example, we have worked with Hydro One to develop their Farm Rapid Response Team, a group of knowledgeable staff who farmers can access to respond to on-farm electrical problems.

Meaningful change has been slow to come, however. Stray voltage problems remain undiagnosed or unresolved because the level of current causing the issue falls within the existing standards of the provincial electrical code. Lowering that code threshold from one volt to a quarter of a volt, for example, would be one way to help encourage action across all electrical stakeholders.

There are some encouraging signs that the provincial government is hearing our concerns. Ontario’s energy minister, Todd Smith, has formed the Stray Voltage Working Group to focus on this issue.

Members include the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Energy Board, Hydro One Networks, Electrical Safety Authority, Electricity Distributors Association, and Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario as well as observers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.

I’m part of this working group and after a series of meetings, we’ve released a report that includes recommendations for government on next steps that we believe will help find ways to address this issue.

This includes better communication and information sharing, including the participation of veterinarians; reducing likelihood and frequency of stray voltage, including reviewing and updating relevant codes and standards, and identifying and addressing instances of stray voltage, including enhanced testing protocols and a formalized, one-stop escalation protocol for affected farmers.

The symptoms and impacts of stray voltage on Ontario farmers and their livestock have been identified for decades, but it also has the potential to become a more widespread problem. As farms adopt more digital and electronic technology – which will ultimately help us produce more food more sustainably with fewer resources, the stray voltage challenge could create problems and disruptions to those on-farm systems too.

The Stray Voltage Working Group must continue to collectively encourage the government to act on these recommendations. Solving the stray voltage issue will ensure better animal welfare, reduce farmer stress, and ensure a strong and resilient food supply system for Ontario that is equipped to meet growth goals.


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