Trial starts in Brown Co. REA stray voltage lawsuit

Dairy farmer suing Brown County REA over dairy losses

NEW ULM — A three-week jury trial began Tuesday in Brown County District Court to hear a civil case alleging stray voltage at a Sleepy Eye dairy farm caused by the Brown County Rural Electrical Association (REA).

A 12-member jury of four women and four men were chosen Tuesday morning before attorneys presented opening arguments that lasted 90 minutes each.

Rochester attorney Jeremy Stevens, representing plaintiffs Brian and Jill Nelson, dba Olmar Farms, said the case is about lost milk production in cows due to electricity. The Nelsons are seeking more than $50,000 in the case.

Stevens said the Nelson’s cows behavior changed in 2008.

“They didn’t want to come into the parlor, got edgy and didn’t like to drink water from 2008 to May 1, 2015,” Stevens said. “The cows wouldn’t take long drinks anymore and we’ve got videos of it. Cows got sick for no reason. Veterinarians couldn’t find out why. Cows fell, couldn’t get up and kicked off milkers. They were weak and couldn’t get into stalls.”

Stevens said stray voltage affected the cows’ immune system, they wouldn’t get bred, had miscarriages and calves were abnormally sick.

“The cows were under stress, not all their milk came out and it took longer to milk them. Their milk had less butterfat and protein, which is valuable when farmers sell milk to the creamery. This went on for the better part of a decade,” Stevens said. “The Brown County REA came out and tested electricity a number of times and said there was no problem, and if there was, it was on the Nelson’s side.”

The Nelsons searched for reasons, bringing many consultants to their farm. In March 2015, they hired a consultant who set up meters and tested electricity for three days at the farm.

Stevens said the consultant said the fix was to change from single to three-phase power, which cost the Nelson’s $47,000 to do after the REA refused to pay for the change. Stevens said the REA admitted it didn’t use the right power transformer at first, later changed it and the cow herd began recovering, but not until the herd was devastated and the Nelson’s lives were negatively impacted.

Stevens said Wisconsin Master Electrician Larry Neubauer found stray voltage on the Nelson farm and blamed it on the REA.

“It was a night and day difference,” Stevens said after the conversion to three-phase power and isolating stray voltage.

“You won’t hear from the cows in this case. They don’t have an agenda, just data. Focus on that,” Stevens said to the jury. “We ask that you find the cooperative was wrong, award these folks what they’ve lost and for all the strife they went through.”

“We disagree on some things. This is complicated subject matter. The plaintiffs say the underlying science the cooperative used is not accurate,” Mankato trial lawyer Scott V. Kelly said. He’s representing the REA.

He talked about differing views in the case, including what type of test equipment should be used to measure stray voltage.

“What is a safe level of stray voltage and when is it a problem?” Kelly asked. “The REA hires engineers that meet all standards to do its electrical testing.”

Kelly said Grant Groen, a former Ridgewater College Dairy Management instructor, found a number of equipment problems on the Nelson farm in March 2012.

“Larry Neubauer tested with a scope used in Wisconsin that is very sensitive. The scope’s manufacturer said it is not accurate for stray voltage,” Kelly said. He said the testing was based on “junk science.”

Attorney Mark S. Henkel of Stevens Point, Wi., another REA attorney, said cows are tested monthly and data shows in detail what happens to them over time.

“Bacteria can make cows sick and it’s not treatable. What a cow eats is critical.” Henkel said.

He said everyone has an opinion in the case but what matters is what it is worth.

“This can be a case of mind-boggling complexity or about common sense,” Henkel said.

The jury trial continues at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

(Fritz Busch can be emailed at fbusch@nujournal.com).