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Freight Focus: A Different Breed

by Jim Park

Tilley Metzger, co-owner of B&M Stockers and Feeders in Kitchener, Ont., an auction barn, remembers the day many years ago when he testified on behalf of Hyndman Transport in its quest for a general-freight authority. Hyndman was strictly a livestock carrier whose application was being vigorously opposed by several companies. They contested Hyndman's assertion that the rates paid to cattle haulers were insufficient to support a round trip to western Canada, loaded only one way.

The hearing was drawing to a close, and it didn't look good for Hyndman, based in Wroxeter, Ont.

Metzger explained how the cattle trailers could be sanitized and reconfigured to pull freight on the way out, then cattle on the trip back east. If cattle hauling companies weren't allowed to subsidize the operation with a load of freight, he said, the price of the barbecued steak that transport board members enjoyed so much could easily double to cover the cost. It worked. Hyndman got the licence, and we all still enjoy quality beef at a reasonable price.

Changing Times

They may all look pretty much the same from the outside, but livestock transporters tend to specialize in what and where they haul. Hyndman's livestock division transports cattle, primarily between western Canada and Ontario, while Budmar Transport Inc. of Watford, Ont., sticks mostly to hogs and stays pretty much within the province. Likewise, A.C. Tetachuck Trucking Ltd. of Cayley, Alta., never leaves that province and specializes in hauling feeder cattle from the feed lots south of Calgary to a nearby processing plant. They also do pasture hauls for ranchers who move their cattle up to an open range during the summer, then return them to the feed lots in the fall.

Other livestock haulers specialize in hauling exotic creatures such as llamas, alpacas and ostrich, or high-value breeder stock from farm to farm. It's all a matter of finding the niche and serving the heck out of the customer.

Is it a growth industry? Not in terms of long hauls. There are fewer cattle moving between west and east today, so fewer trucks are required. This has caused many of the smaller livestock operations to close up or amalgamate, then diversify into freight hauling or some other specialty. Long-distance cattle hauling really got its start back in the 1970s, when the railroads couldn't keep up with demand, and at its peak some 400,000 cattle a year were shipped east. That number has dropped to around 200,000 today.

Trucks have always been needed to move cattle from the feedlot to the railhead, and then on to market. When farmers realized trucks could do the long hauls faster, more humanely and for the same price as rail, the transition began. In the glory days, when diesel cost $0.40 per gallon, truckers were seeing rates of $7.00 per hundredweight for a 45,000-lb load. Today, with fuel at $0.65 per litre, livestock haulers are working for $9.50 per hundredweight based on a 55,000-lb payload.

The economics of the livestock market dictate that it's less expensive to ship market-ready beef on a reefer, either hanging from the roof or in a cardboard box, than on the hoof. In fact, much of the beef that still makes the trip in a cattle pot, as the trailers are called, are being shipped to eastern auction barns and sold to local farmers. They're fattened locally, then sold to smaller processing plants.

Hyndman's operations manager, Randy Scott, says that the cheapest way to ship a pound of beef is when it's a 400-lb calf.

"At seven bucks a hundred, you're looking at about $30 to move him across the country," Scott says. "At 800 lb, you get fewer animals on board and there's more dollars involved."

The trucker sees the same revenue for a load of 400-pounders as he would for a load of 800-pounders, but the buyer gets twice as many animals delivered for the same rate.

The Cattleliner

The trailers, called cattleliners or cattle pots, are rather sophisticated pieces of engineering, and expensive too. Double-tasking to carry both freight and livestock requires a fair bit of flexibility. When set up for livestock, the trailer uses a three-piece movable deck, where each section of the deck can be raised or lowered as required. In freight configuration, the decks are lowered level with the rear section to allow a forklift into the truck, or they can be raised up to the roof for maximum cubic capacity. Freight can also be stacked on the decks at various levels as required. The vertical sections, or gates, are designed to create pens where the cattle can be corralled, and kept from wandering around the trailer, but they're large enough to allow room for the cattle to lie down. They have built-in swinging doors to allow the cattle access to the pen. These gates can be swung to the side in freight configuration. Aluminum ramps for the cattle are used between levels. Hog trailers may contain two decks in the centre section because hogs require less vertical clearance than cattle.

The sides of the trailers have ventilation holes punched into the aluminum skin to maintain an air flow in the trailer, but each of the vertical panels are fitted with tracks so that wind boards can be slid in to cover the holes - a necessity for freight. The boards can also control temperature when used for livestock. Hogs are very sensitive to wind chill and frost bite, whereas cattle tend to overheat fairly easily, even in the cold weather. It's the driver's job to keep the animals comfortable in transit, which often means adding or removing boards as the temperature changes, especially from day to night.

Converting the trailer from livestock to freight takes about two hours. Naturally, the trailers are washed out and disinfected prior to loading dry freight, but that's a job left to a select group of people. Drivers usually aren't expected to "don the boots" for that task.

There's also a configuration known as a "fat pot" which has double-wide doors for the larger beasts. Prices for these wagons are in the $60,000 to $70,000 range which, when considering the rates, represents a sizeable cut of the cost of doing business.

Hogs and Cattle

Different critters entirely, and the transportation concerns are entirely different as well. According to Scott, cattle are the easier of the two to deal with. "They're pretty docile and they're easily herded on and off the truck," he says. Hogs, on the other hand, have minds of their own, and usually an attitude to go with it.

Dale Cundick, vice president of Budmar Transport, says hogs are stubborn and unpredictable. "If they can find a hole to squeeze through, they're gone," he says. "You can't give a hog an escape route. You're best to use chutes and pens with solid sides so they can't see a way out." Cundick says he's had his share of chasing hogs through the streets, and prefers not giving the animals any chance to escape.

While in transit, cattle tend to stand while the truck is moving, and lie down to sleep when the driver stops to sleep. Occasionally, if a calf falls down, the driver will have to get into the trailer and stand it up again, to prevent it from being trampled by the others, so they require frequent inspections. Hogs prefer to burrow into the straw bedding in the trailer and will stay there, lying down, for the entire journey.

Most hog hauls tend to be fairly short, three to four hours or so, with the occasional longer trip. Cundick says hogs are shipped in pens, in accordance with a code of humane transport practices, and are usually misted down right after loading, then left alone for the trip. Most cattle are trucked over short distances as well, but the long west-to-east hauls often require a stop-over for feeding, water and a bit of rest.

"Any trip over 44 hours, or from anywhere west of Regina, requires a 12-hour stop," Scott says. "There's a facility in Thunder Bay that we always use, and a few others closer to Toronto in case there are any unplanned delays that necessitate a feed stop."

Special Drivers

The guy in the coveralls and the boots isn't quite a modern-day cowboy, but he needs some of the same attributes. He's working with animals, not pieces of freight, so the driver needs to understand his cargo. Most livestock haulers come from a farming background, so dealing with the animals comes almost naturally.

"These guys all take a great deal of pride in what they do," Scott says. "It's an experience to unload the truck and watch all the calves hopping and skipping around the pen. If the cattle are happy, the farmer's happy, and it's all because the driver took that extra care on the way down."

Scott says you can make a cattle hauler into a freight hauler, but it seldom goes the other way. The guys often get into the trailer to settle the young calves or to rearrange the bedding if it gets wet. Cattle can be a high-maintenance cargo, and definitely not for your average truck driver.

Holly Tetachuck-Tarasoff, owner of A.C. Tetachuck, says her drivers are often left entirely on their own when loading cattle from a farm or out in a pasture. "There's an element of trust there, and my Dad built this business on trust and good faith," she told us. "It's the guys we hire that maintain that trust." Sometimes her guys help sorting the cattle, and they've got to be able to tell a sick animal from a healthy one, so a farm background is practically a requirement for the job.

Both Scott and Cundick, and Tetachuck-Tarasoff to a lesser extent because her business is fairly small, express concern about the future supply of drivers.

"The family farms are disappearing, and with them, the young lads who'll grow up around cattle and trucks," says Scott. "These guys are a different breed. They don't just walk in off the street and become good cattle haulers."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the pay isn't any better than a freight hauler's as a rule, which makes the task of getting drivers interested in livestock hauling that much more difficult. But according to Cundick, once you're in the business, it's hard to get out.

"It gets into your blood," he says. "And all over your boots."

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