America's dairy cows are being shocked to death by electrical power surges in automatic milking machines. Thousands of cows have been killed while farmers have tried in vain to get help from the federal government. Stray voltage is to a dairy farmer what drought is to a grain farmer. But while dead corn and wheat can bring Congress or the Agriculture Department to the rescue, dead cows have been ignored. The excess voltage enters electric milking machinery that is hooked to the cows' udders. Though the charge isn't enough to kill the cow, she emerges from the experience sadder but wiser. Once shocked, cows balk at the milking machines and even refuse to breed. Cows have been similarly shocked from barn floors and from watering troughs. Farmers tell us that their cows drink the urine of other cows rather than venture near the water trough. The farmers say constant exposure to stray voltage weakens the cows' immune systems and they die of various diseases. During their slow death, the cows withhold their milk. Dairy farmers must force their reluctant cows to be milked, at least until the cows die, so the farmers can stay in business. A few farmers blame stray voltage for putting them out of business. Some have successfully sued utility companies and the milk-machine installers for losses due to stray voltage. Many of the cases are quietly settled out of court and that keeps the controversy from gaining national attention. But farmers now want their issue on the table. In Wisconsin, they have been fired up by a court decision awarding $1.1 million to Wallace Daggett of Random Lakes. Daggett sued the Wisconsin Electric Power Co., claiming stray voltage had cost him 600 cows over a 10-year period. Daggett now gets calls every day from farmers who want to know what to do about stray voltage. One of those calls came from Robby Webb of Powderly, Tex., who claims to have lost more than 400 cows to stray voltage. Webb told our reporter Tim Warner that his creditors are breathing down his neck and he is awaiting the outcome of his lawsuit against a milk-machine installer. While waiting for his day in court, Webb has appealed to his elected representatives in Washington for an emergency Farmers' Home Administration loan. He gets sympathy, but no action from Reps. Jim Chapman and Charles W. Stenholm, both Texas Democrats. Maybe their real sympathies are elsewhere. Chapman annually collects $2,000 in honoraria from the Northeast Texas Electrical Cooperative. Stenholm was on the receiving end of $2,000 in honoraria from the National Rural Electric Cooperative and $6,000 from the American Milk Producers Inc. in the last five years. Both congressmen say the money did not buy their influence on this issue. Stenholm, chairman of the House livestock, dairy and poultry subcommittee, said he would be more than willing to consider legislation on stray voltage, but that no solution for it has been found. Researchers who have studied it for 10 years disagree and say there are ways to eliminate the effects of stray voltage. The utilities say they are working on it, and deny that they have tried to keep the controversy locked behind the barn door.