As farm machinery gets bigger, electric co-ops say they're seeing more incidents of farm equipment striking poles or snagging overhead lines — collisions that can be dangerous and costly.
Federated Rural Electric in southwest Minnesota had to dispatch a repair crew earlier this month when a farmer tilling a field hit a transmission tower, snapping it and killing power to more than 2,000 customers for a couple of hours. It was the third accident the utility's seen just this fall, said Andrea Christoffer, the cooperative's marketing and communications manager.
Last spring, a farmer on some tillage equipment misjudged the distance to some guy wires stabilizing a nearby power pole, she added. The casualties included five power poles in all and nearly a mile of line.
Sioux Valley Energy is seeing a couple of collisions a month, said Terry Ebright, safety coordinator for the co-op, which serves seven counties in southwest Minnesota and eastern South Dakota.
"We've got about 20 contacts from farm equipment into our power lines since January first of this year," said Ebright.
The accidents have caused a lot of damage to the electric system, he added, noting it costs a couple thousand dollars to replace a power pole.
They can also fry farm machinery that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ebright recalled one incident where the long booms of an herbicide sprayer caught an overhead line. Electricity surged through the equipment.
So far, the accidents haven't caused any personal injuries. But Ebright said he worries it's just a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt. Electrocution is a significant factor in on-farm deaths. About 60 American farmers die each year in electrical accidents, including power line incidents.
There's an economic incentive for farmers to maneuver close to electric infrastructure. They want to get as close as possible to power lines in order to keep every bit of land they have in production and generating revenue. But if they damage the lines or poles, the electric company will bill them for the cost of the repairs. That cost can easily run several thousand dollars.
Maneuvering the machinery is a challenge, though.
Northwest Minnesota farmer Jack Stock said he and his sons seed a narrow strip of property dotted with power poles on one side and public property on the other. But their equipment is wider than the strip they own, so they navigate around the polls in a scallop pattern.
"You have to do the same thing with our sprayer and diggers, and everything that we use around there," said Stock, adding that the family pays close attention to the poles.
"We need electricity," he said. "There's no question about that."