This article was #3 in PDmag's Top 25 most-well read articles in 2010. Summary: The Reed family of Jasper, Minnesota, was forced to quit dairying because they couldn’t overcome problems with stray voltage. Chuck Untiedt faced similar problems and made it his mission to educate other dairy producers about stray voltage and the benefits of using monitoring equipment. Because this article was so popular, we asked Untiedt a follow-up question:

Q. How many more producers have you been able to help since the Reed family? Did using a digital multi-meter solve most stray voltage problems?
We are now working with an Xcel Energy engineer and their stray voltage person to solve dairy farmers’ problems. It is so very nice to not have it be “them against us.” It can be all of us working together to help the dairy farmer. Just like the IEEE paper that I co-authored with Jim Burke, we can agree to disagree on the levels and still continue to work with the utility to allow us to have more stringent criteria than the utility believes is necessary and find a level that works for the dairy farm. All we need from the utility is highly effective isolation and excellent power quality.

We have spoken with hundreds of dairy farmers, electricians and about 20 engineers. We have approximately 10 herds that are coming along extremely well, and nearly 10 farms in the process of correction. When he has time, Kenny Reed assists me in helping others.

The DMM is a true workhorse and most definitely the easiest meter to use correctly. It is hard to go wrong with a Fluke DMM, but the Fluke ScopeMeter is one of our meters of choice. We are looking for the voltage/current level that swings open the door for production and herd health, and we see continued improvements the lower we go. Yes, I did say voltage/current, not just voltage — we are also focusing on the current available. How far to reduce it, and/or the voltage is still in question.
—Chuck Untiedt, Dairy producer, Lakefield, Minnesota

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Kenneth and Gloria Reed of Jasper, Minnesota, have been dairying since 1968. If it weren’t for the devastating effects of stray voltage, they would still be dairying.


The Reeds started seeing serious problems with their herd in March of 2007. The cows wouldn’t respond to treatment, and no one seemed to know what was going on.

“We started out one evening with mastitis, and the cows were dropping to the floor in the stanchions. Our somatic cell count was very high. In May, the cows were kicking more,” Gloria says.

The Reeds’ cows are an example of some of the typical symptoms that surface when there is stray voltage in or near a dairy facility. Other common symptoms are refusal to enter the barn, low water intake, low dry matter intake and low immunity to diseases and problems.

“We noticed that in the barn the cows were reluctant to come in, and then if there was a crack in the cement that they wouldn’t walk over the crack – they’d just freeze. Once they got into the stanchion, their heads were just still. They wouldn’t eat, they’d just stay there until they were milked and we would let them out,” Kenneth says.

The Reeds’ dairy is between two substations. The dairy was being affected by electrical currents that were escaping from electrical wiring and crossing their dairy on its way back to the substation. The Reeds called their local utility company, which came out right away and spent a lot of time helping them, but the utility employees were unable to find the source of the currents.

It became more apparent that there were some high voltages at their farm because it started to affect other things. When people would come and visit, their cell phones had poor reception and would go dead early, which hadn’t happened at their farm before.

“I could put a watch on any place on this farm, and the electrical field would stop it in a minute and a half,” Kenneth says. The stray voltage was starting to affect the Reeds’ health too.

“It’s just endless. When you work with engineers everyday and milking cows and everything that goes with it, mentally, emotionally and physically it affects the human body. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a pool of blood from my nose. I would walk to the barn, and blood would drip out of my nose,” Gloria says.

The Reeds came in contact with Chuck Untiedt, another dairy producer who had experienced stray voltage. Together with Untiedt and the utility company, they began to identify and solve the problems. Untiedt brought a digital multi-meter (DMM) that can detect and measure voltages and can help identify the source.

Ted Smith, an engineer from the utility company, noticed that the cows weren’t drinking right. Using the DMM, Untiedt found two volts in the water trough. When they shut off all the power on the facility, the voltage was still there. Smith then knew it was the utility’s problem, and he immediately went to work to install an isolator. But even though they were able to fix the major problems, there were still smaller problems that kept cropping up. The Reeds decided to rewire everything on their farm.

“It’s like peeling an onion. You take off the layers, and as you take off one layer, you find another layer of problems underneath that,” Untiedt says.

When the cows were finally content and production was going up, the Reeds knew they had finally solved the problem. At least for awhile.

“The most important lesson I had learned about stray voltage was reinforced at Reeds. We did not set up monitoring, and because of that the Reeds and I did not know that the stray voltage was back. The cows tried to tell us, but we weren’t watching closely enough,” Untiedt says.

When conditions changed at the dairy that winter, the cows began to deteriorate again, production dropped sharply and their SCC count soared to over one million.

“Because we weren’t monitoring, we ended up with more problems. One day I said to Ken, ‘I have to order feed. What are we going to do?’ And he threw up his hands and he said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. We have to quit.’ It took one phone call, and someone wanted our cows. They went to a different dairy farm, and when they’d been off of our farm for awhile, they were topping this guy’s herd,” Gloria says.

Untiedt never forgot this lesson, and he now insists that every producer he assists sets up monitoring equipment in their facility.

The Tollerud brothers, who are producers from Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, have taken this to heart.

“I feel those meters should just be standard equipment on a dairy farm. I mean, there are a lot of on-farm things that go wrong too; it’s not all off-farm. But unless you have the meter, you don’t know it until the cows have reacted negatively, and at that point it is already too late. You’ve already hurt production and health. And if you look at the economics of the meter, it’s pretty cheap compared to problems,” Travis Tollerud says.

Chuck Newcombe, an expert on voltage detection technology, says a DMM can be found at most home improvement stores. A scopemeter is a more advanced piece of equipment that is similar to a DMM. Untiedt uses a 199C scopemeter to constantly monitor his farm. The data from the scopemeter can be loaded onto a computer to make it easier to track. The Tolleruds have found another added benefit to continuous monitoring in their dairy parlor.

“Now that we have set up our own meters, I would start to pick up some current on the meter, and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I went to the electrical board and found that some of the electrical equipment had burnt out. I fixed it, and it went away. It will help you just for reliability of equipment. I mean, if you can pick something up and find it and fix it ahead of time, it won’t be one of those middle-of-the-night repairs,” Brent Tollerud says.

Dr. Terry Van Dyke, the Tolleruds’ veterinarian, has diagnosed problems on many dairies by narrowing it down to stray voltage.

“Stray voltage is very prevalent. It is real, and cows are affected by it. If I can find it and get it eliminated, then I know it’s going to make a difference and the cows are going to act totally different,” Van Dyke says. PD