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UW-Madison Stray Voltage Research Project Approved

A University of Wisconsin faculty committee has recommended funding of a stray voltage research project, one of a handful underway across the country.

The Wisconsin legislature provided $350,000 in the last budget to study stray voltage and instructed the University of Wisconsin to plan and perform the research on this controversial subject.

In approving the funding, the UW Stray Voltage Research Planning Committee (SVRPC) considered the opinions of several scientists concerned about how to approach the difficult issue of whether and how stray voltage may affect livestock.

The study will have three parts.

One part will attempt to measure electrical ground currents in frequency ranges of 1 Hz to 1 kHz. David Alumbaugh of the UW-Madison Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering will conduct field experiments to measure these possible electrical events on farms with and without electrical problems. Such extensive research has not been attempted on actual farmsteads until now.

Douglas Reinemann, UW-Madison Department of Biological Systems Engineering, is in charge of the part of the study that will attempt to expose cattle to the type of electrical phenomena Alumbaugh observes in the field.

A more complex and innovative portion of the study will attempt to evaluate cattle response to electrical phenomena. Lewis Sheffield, UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science, is planning this part of the study.

The SVRPC comprises UW-Madison faculty members and representatives from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Elton Aberle, dean of the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, chairs the committee.

The SVRPC considered input from four scientific reviewers as well as the Rural Energy Management Council (REMC) in making its recommendations. The REMC also voted to support the research proposal put forward by the three scientists.

Aberle said he was pleased with the important role that the REMC played in formulating the research call and in reviewing the project.

“The REMC invited public input to the process and helped shape a research call that we feel targeted the concerns many farmers have with stray voltage today — namely the impacts of non-60 Hz electrical phenomena on animal well-being,” he added.

“The research call asked faculty members to address the higher frequency electrical phenomena and determine possible effects on cattle. That”s what we have in the study proposal,” Aberle said.

The researchers will attempt to measure high-frequency ground current and electromagnetic fields on farms. This work is expected to make important contributions to standardizing measurement of such electrical events.

In addition, the study is forging new ways to measure animal response to electrical exposure. Electrical events observed in the field will be imitated in a controlled laboratory setting. Only in such a controlled setting can researchers screen out scores of other variables found on working farms.

Finally, the study will use the latest biological techniques to measure gene expression as a possible indicator of cattle well-being following exposure to certain electrical events. These gene changes may be linked to health problems in animals. Sheffield and scientific reviewers of his portion of the proposal discussed questions and suggestions regarding appropriate methodologies and agreed on a basic approach, with SVRPC approval.

Aberle said the scientific review worked as one would hope.

“When dealing with cutting-edge science, researchers often have differing views about the best approaches and methodologies,” Aberle said. “The review process is meant to improve the project proposals and lead to the best science possible, given resource and time limitations,” he said.

Researchers will also gather more traditional and parallel data on variables such as daily water and feed intake, body temperature, daily milk production, and milking duration. The time and pattern of cattle standing and lying patterns will be recorded, as will time for cows to re-enter stalls after milking.

“Legislative backers of this funding wanted new ways to analyze and address the long-standing problem of stray voltage on some Wisconsin dairy farms,” Aberle said. “We think this study provides promising new approaches that can lead to answers.”