One group of heifers wouldn’t stop bellowing. At first we thought they were just being typical heifers . . . the kind that expect a pail of grain every time you walk by the pen. But they’d had their grain for the morning and they had a fresh bale of alfalfa hay.
Maybe their automatic waterer needed cleaning, we thought. So Glen grabbed a scrub brush and went to scrub it out.
Holding onto the steel column next to the waterer with one hand, Glen scrubbed the sides of the water trough. Then his hand dipped into the water as he reached to scrub the bottom and he felt a jolt of electricity.
He didn’t believe he’d actually been shocked, so he put one hand on the steel column and touched the surface of the water again. He felt the tingle of an electric shock again.
The breaker that powers the heating elements in our automatic waterers is still turned off for the warm weather season, so the shock Glen felt had to be from stray voltage. Still in disbelief, Glen went to get his digital multimeter to verify his findings.
The multimeter showed 3.1 volts of electricity flowing between the column and the water. No wonder the heifers wouldn’t be quiet. Bovines are even more sensitive to stray voltage than humans.
We immediately called our electrician. He suggested we start our investigation by checking the electric fencer, which was on the opposite side of the farm. So, we unplugged the fencer and walked back to check the voltage by the waterer. By the time we got back to the heifer pen, six heifers had their noses in the waterer, quenching their thirst.
The multimeter showed no voltage present.
The next call we made was to a nutritionist we know who watches for stray voltage. He came that afternoon and helped us further isolate the issue. It turned out that the stray voltage was coming not from the fencer, but from the outlet the fencer was plugged into.
As we discussed the problem, the situation started to make sense. A strong storm had gone through the night before. In the aftermath, we were left without power and phone service.
Lightning strikes are known to travel along wire fences. A surge of electricity from a lightning strike could easily have traveled along our electric pasture fence, through the electric fencer, and into the outlet . . . damaging the outlet.
The nutritionist also detected stray voltage — but at lower levels — around the other two automatic waterers we have on the farm. But, in each case, as soon as the electric fencer was unplugged, the problem went away.
Our electrician then got a second call . . . to come and replace the outlet.
Thankfully, this experience with stray voltage was easily remedied. Our heifers are back to bellowing only when they see us coming with the grain pails. If they get noisy in the future, we’ll start investigating right away.
The author is a dairy farmer and writer from central Minnesota. She farms with her husband, Glen, and their three children. Sadie grew up on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in agricultural communications and marketing. She also blogs at Dairy Good Life.