Ag groups and utility companies are being challenged to propose changes in a bill that would set up a new statewide standard for addressing cases of “stray” electric voltage that zap farm livestock. 

“It’s just easy to say, ‘No, no, no.’ How do we solve the problem?” asks Representative Stewart Iverson, a Republican from Clarion who is the bill’s manager. “Because we know stray voltage can be a huge problem.”

It’s mainly a problem on dairy farms where, for example, cows hooked up to milking machines sometimes can get zapped if there’s a power surge. Matthew Steinfeldt, a lobbyist for the Iowa Farm Bureau, says farmers and utilities are doing just fine in resolving any problems and the bill’s unnecessary.

“The best thing is to quickly identify and resolve stray voltage (issues). That’s what farmers want to do, but what this bill does, I mean, it’s a major change that will have a significant effect,” Steinfeldt says. “In a way, it takes away a right to due process. No other group in the state of Iowa is subject to something like this.”

Kellie Paschke lobbies for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, another group that is opposed to the bill.

“This bill goes beyond just setting a standard for stray voltage,” Paschke says. “It completely changes how stray voltage claims can be pursued.”

A three-member subcommittee gave initial approval to this controversial bill earlier today, but the three legislators say they’re hoping the interest groups involved suggest “major” changes in the legislation. Representative Brian Quirk, a Democrat from New Hampton, was a member of the three-member committee. Quirk, who happens to be an electrician, said the bill needs to better define the standards for the stray voltage tests.

“Cattle are a lot like people…Their tolerance levels (for pain) are a lot different,” Quirk said during today’s subcommittee meeting. “Where is that threshold?”

Quirk supports the bill’s requirement that the state Utility Board be the first stop for resolving disputes over stray voltage.

“I like the fact that the Utility Board, being a third-party resource, to actually define where the fault did occur,” Quirk said. “Should it be with the utility or with the consumer?”

Critics say the bill limits a farmer’s ability to sue for damages if their livestock are harmed by stray voltage.

“As Rural Electic Cooperatives, we’re very supportive of the dairy industry. This bill is not to take a shot at the dairy industry, but more about resolving safety issues that result from stray voltage,” said Timothy Coonan, a lobbyist for Iowa Rural Electric Cooperatives. “The process we’re proposing leads to resolution of those issues much quicker, much safer and less costly for everyone concerned.”

The bill as currently drafted tries to combine laws and regulations from the states of Idaho and Wisconsin. Those states rank in the top five nationally in terms of dairy production. Iowa ranks 12th in the number of pounds of milk produced per year.

According to the Iowa Dairy Association, there were more than 200,000 dairy cattle in the state in 2010. There were more than 1900 dairy farms that year in Iowa.