By Larry Davis, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
A lot of the problems that occur on a farm are tangible, meaning there is a direct cause and effect as to what the problem is. For example, a dysfunctional grain leg, broken-down equipment or a fence that needs mending. These are all obvious issues that we try to resolve right away to prevent a lack of productivity. But, what about the issues we don’t see?
Stray voltage and ground current are persistent electrical issues for livestock farmers that can be highly misunderstood, misidentified and cause severe negative impacts to the health of both livestock and farmers. I have seen the impact on cattle, poultry, swine and other animals, as well as farm families.
When I was youngster working in my parents’ dairy barn, I could feel it when I cleaned out the water bowls. We called it tingle voltage or stray voltage. It wasn’t until years later that I understood what it really was and how serious it can be to the health of our livestock.
When animals are exposed to low-level currents travelling through the ground, especially over a long period of time, their well-being and life span is directly impacted. To avoid the current, animals may refuse to eat or drink, cows may refuse to enter milking stations, reproductive issues can occur, low birth weight and even death can persist among a herd. The impact of uncontrolled electricity is heightened when an animal has open sores by intensifying the sensation and increasing pain at the site.
This chronic suffering can bring mental anguish to many farmers because at the end of the day, we all want to raise healthy, content livestock which is highly influenced by living conditions. Additionally, a decline of productivity in livestock adds a financial burden to farm businesses and has the potential to threaten the viability of the farm. From experience with our family farm business, we were not able to identify and overcome the stray voltage challenge which put us out of business.
The Uncontrolled Electricity Working Group (UEWG) was formed to help tackle and mitigate issues related to chronic exposure of uncontrolled electricity. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is a key member of this working group, tasked with addressing electrical issues that have been a serious concern for some farmers for decades.
The mission of the UEWG is to ensure the health and well-being of Ontario livestock by working to mitigate issues related to chronic exposure of uncontrolled electricity. The goal is also to bring greater awareness to this issue, which has persisted for decades and fails to acquire adequate attention.
Beginning our work in 2007, the UEWG has made significant progress improving communication and understanding between farmers and the Ontario Energy Board (OEB). Distribution System Code Appendix H was published, which acknowledges stray voltage and standardizes the way farms are tested. Until this group was established, stray voltage was not recognized as an issue and once the farming community became aware of the problem, it was difficult to explain to electrical service groups.
Stray voltage on farms typically amounts to no more than one volt. Although this amount of current has negative effects on livestock, electrical service groups typically deal with thousands of uncontrolled volts along the distribution system. Testing of stray voltage would show there was less than one volt of uncontrolled electricity, which by the Electrical Safety Code, does not require a call for action. The UEWG worked with Hydro One to develop their Farm Rapid Response Team, which includes consistently trained field staff that are experts in understanding farm related electrical issues. This creates a support system at the ground level for farmers to get in touch with and immediately respond to on-farm electrical problems.
Now that our group has been established for more than eight years, we are starting to collect more data through our research. Eventually, this research may be able to point to certain areas in Ontario that stray voltage is more problematic, and what type of livestock is most impacted. It’s very difficult to see farmers within our communities experiencing this frustrating challenge. Farmers often blame themselves for poor herd health and spend a significant amount of time, finances and energy to eradicate problems among their herd. In these situations, however, it motivates us to find solutions and work with experts to ensure we mitigate this issue in the future. A growing number of farmers, industry stakeholders and electrical representatives are improving their understanding of this problem and learning how to address it.
The UEWG, created by OFA, is made up of farmers, veterinarians, livestock commodity group representatives and farm organizations. Our group relies on the expertise of these rural voices as well as an electrician and electrical engineer. We work closely with the Electrical Safety Authority and the Ontario Ministries of Energy and Agriculture. Together this group offers a balanced perspective of the needs of farmers and what improvements can be made through testing and electrical infrastructure. OFA has contributed a significant amount of time, and representatives like me, have worked hard to meet the needs of farmers across Ontario. Financial contributions have been made to fund research to continue the exploration of viable options and solutions.
The Member of Provincial Parliament for Chatham-Kent-Leamington, Rick Nicholls, has recently established a group within the Ontario government to develop best practices on protection from stray voltage on farms. This group also acknowledges that livestock have been suffering for decades due to uncontrolled electricity and will rely on research we have acquired over the years to improve testing and ground current monitoring. With aligning goals, our group is optimistic that immense progress will be achieved to serve the needs and priorities of Ontario farmers and their livestock.