Nelson details farm’s stray voltage journey

REA attorney questions qualifications of Wisconsin consultant

BROWN COUNTY — Sleepy Eye dairy farmer Brian Nelson testified for several hours Friday in a Brown County District Court civil case in which he and his wife are suing the Brown County Rural Electrical Association (REA).

The case alleges stray voltage issues for nearly a decade jeopardized Olmar Farms’ operation and property in excess of $50,000.

Nelson testified how the amount of manure in his milking parlor got “drastically worse” in the spring of 2011 after a new barn was put up at the farm.

He said he called the REA, they came out and tested for stray voltage, as they did for years. Their response was the same as always — there was no stray voltage and if there was, it was from the farm, not REA.

Nelson told of hiring nutritional, environmental and electrical consultants to visit the farm. He testified they made recommendations to try to improve the health of his cows that were nervous, lame, didn’t eat or drink well, kicked excessively, had miscarriages and other ailments.

“We changed the time and order of mixing feed. I think it improved our mixing efficiency and made our feed more consistent,” Nelson said. “We went round and round all those years, chasing our tail until May 1, 2017. I was frustrated, angry. Jill (Nelson’s wife and the dairy operations manager) kept telling me the cows told her something was wrong. Then she got (Wisconsin master electrician) Larry Neubauer’s name from a friend.”

Nelson said Neubauer was more expensive and did testing differently than anybody else they dealt with.

He testified Neubauer spent three days at the farm, using an oscilloscope and other equipment, charging the Nelsons $6,900.

“I couldn’t pay for it, but Jill talked to her parents about loaning us money to bring him out,” Nelson said. “I got the names of people he worked for who told he they had good results. He had a trailer with lots of equipment. He walked the entire farm to find things to test. He was the first person to do that.”

Nelson testified Neubauer said there was stray voltage on the farm and recommended the Nelsons install a stray voltage monitoring system with strobe lights, an isolation system and three-phase power to the farm to solve their problems.

The Nelsons followed the recommendations, asking the REA to pay for the three-phase upgrade but were refused.

“Neubauer said the problems we had came from the utility, not the farm,” Nelson testified. “I called the REA after we turned on the monitor and the light burned all the time.”

Nelson testified he and his wife spent $89,000 on the upgrade, including $47,940 to convert to three-phase power. The remaining cost included adding four-wire, underground lines in the spring of 2017.

“I wanted to fix the problem as soon as possible,” Nelson testified.

He testified he called Neubauer back to the farm again after the work was done because stray voltage remained on the farm and cow behavior issues remained until a non-isolating transformer was replaced by an isolating transformer by the REA.

“Cows didn’t fall down anymore after that. Their parlor behavior was noticeably better pretty quick,” Nelson testified.

The REA’s attorney Scott Kelly of Mankato cross examined Nelson, saying there are industry standards for stray voltage tests. He said the Wisconsin Public Service Commission determined a 500-ohm resistor was appropriate to represent worst-case circuit impedance and that Neubauer was not a licensed master electrician in Minnesota.

“There are differences of opinion on how to do it, differences of cow resistance and how to measure it. Larry Neubauer said the 500 ohm level is simply wrong, that it’s something less than that,” Nelson testified.

Kelly said the Nelsons were claiming damages prior to 2012 when they had malfunctioning equipment on their farm.

“Our assertion is that the test results don’t actually represent what was actually happening,” Nelson testified. The REA never proved it (stray voltage) isn’t from them.”

Kelly said Neubauer used an oscilloscope to test for stray voltage on the Nelson farm while it’s manufacturer said it should not be used for stray voltage testing and that regulatory agencies said the same thing.

The final hour of the day was spent viewing a video deposition from Mark Cook of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Cook discussed how the agency determined how a 500-ohm resistor was appropriate to represent worst-case circuit impedance and orders affecting five basic stray voltage tests for utilities.

The deposition was introduced as evidence by Olmar Farms counsel. The case continues at 8:30 a.m. Monday, July 22.