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Moving grain to market

Truckers and farmers are still figuring each other out following a massive move to hired transport

The 2014 crop is in the bin, and farmers now face their two perennial post-harvest challenges. They must market their grains and oilseeds amid a challenging world scene, and they must move those harvests efficiently off the farm.

Over the past 20 years, the way they’ve done that second job has changed dramatically. Back when there were 4,000 primary elevators dotting the Prairies, most grain moved just a few miles, and there were lots of delivery options right in their hometowns for many farmers.

Grain moved mainly on farmer-owned trucks, usually either a small three-ton single-axle job, a slightly larger tandem-axle model, or just here and there a highway tractor with super-b grain trailer.

Today that’s all changed. Now there are fewer than 300 elevators covering a region that’s three-quarters of a million square miles. Just delivering to the nearest elevator is often a 40- or 50-mile trip each way, but grain can also be trucked hundreds of miles to end-users.

It’s all led to incentives to load grain onto larger, often hired, trucks, and on the surface it looks like the perfect solution. It works for farmers because the volumes and distances have grown. It works for elevators because larger deliveries are more efficiently processed and transaction costs fall. And it obviously works for trucking companies, who like the volume and income from another major industry.

But at times this new way of doing business isn’t so smoothly executed.

One observer in the trucking industry says that’s not entirely surprising, considering how new the relationship is. Terry Shaw is the executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association, and he confirms that the trucker-farmer interface is definitely a relationship that’s still in its formative stages.

There’s a learning curve that runs both ways, Shaw says. He believes the trucking industry has at least as much to learn as the farmers they’re now hauling for. Truckers, for example, must respect that farmers are busy people who can’t sit in the yard all day, which means truckers need to get better at communicating when they’ll arrive, and then stick to that schedule. Likewise, farmers need to understand that unforeseen delays in loading can dramatically affect both the trucker and whether the load gets there in time.

“We’re heavily regulated in the trucking industry,” Shaw says. “We’re not anti-regulation, but it is a fact of life. So, for example, if a driver shows up and what he thinks will take 20 minutes to load actually takes three hours, that can put them over the allowable hours in their log book, so what should be a 12-hour trip for them becomes a 24-hour one.”

In the end, the key is better two-way communication, and again Shaw says the improvement needs to come on both ends. Farmers need to get better at understanding what they’re asking for, and they need to see limitations of the equipment and the locations they’re asking the trucking industry to load from.

“We do sometimes see situations where a truck will go out and won’t fit,” Shaw says.

It adds up to expensive delays for both parties, and for the trucker, it can mean time on the clock they’re not necessarily getting paid for. Yet on the trucking side, there’s also room to do a better job of ensuring everyone gets the information they need.

“We are, I’m afraid, notorious for not passing information along, especially to our drivers,” Shaw says.

So when you’re talking to the trucking company, make sure you flag anything unusual, Shaw says, and if you’re talking directly to the trucker later, let them know too. Speak up if the road is a seasonal one, or if there are tight turns or anything out of the ordinary, like nearby power lines. If they know about it, they can plan for it.

As the working relationship evolves between the two industries, Shaw says the problems generally begin to iron themselves out.

“If you deal regularly with one company and their drivers, this understanding begins to emerge,” Shaw says. “I think there are a lot of truckers and farmers who have begun to work very well together.”

Technology also helps, especially thanks to cellphones. “It’s getting a lot easier,” Shaw says. “Back when I was working in the industry, you used to have to book an appointment just to make a call.”

Today drivers and farmers can connect directly and fine tune their interactions, with the potential to eliminate a lot of problems. Shaw also notes that the total elimination of these challenges will likely prove impossible, since they continue to exist in other businesses and locations served by the trucking industry.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re picking up a load in rural Manitoba or Saskatchewan or delivering a load to downtown Chicago — there are always going to be challenges,” Shaw says.

Better infrastructure

One key to smoothing out this interaction has been better farm-level infrastructure, according to grain storage expert Blaine Timlick of the Canadian Grain Commission in Winnipeg.

Timlick says the most progressive growers are already well aware of the challenges they face with this new shipping paradigm, and they’re already on top of it.

“I think a lot of farmers have adapted and are thinking about what they’re doing and making investments to build better infrastructure on the farm,” Timlick says.

That’s meant newer and larger bins, more careful design of bin yards, and attention to things like beds of compacted gravel for both bins and trucks and turning radius of larger highway units, Timlick says.

“There are a lot of yards out there now with large-capacity bins and handling equipment that are well laid out and easy to get a super-b in,” Timlick says.

A University of Manitoba grain storage specialist echoes these thoughts, saying farmers have clearly realized there’s a compelling economic case for streamlining their storage and handling systems. Digvir Jayas is a senior administrator at that university today, but previously he held a Canada Research Chair studying stored grain technology.

“Planning your grain storage and handling system to make it more efficient to get grain in and out reduces costs,” Jayas says. “It also pays other dividends by freeing up time for other farm activities.”

The basic design considerations are relatively well understood, Jayas says. A bin yard needs to be laid out so large trucks can easily move in and out. The base of the yard should be firm enough to support the weight of loaded trucks. It should allow easy transfer of grain from bin to hot air dryer and back again, and incorporate aeration fans on the bins.

However, the reality is that most farm grain-handling systems fall somewhere short of perfect, and a lot of them are works in progress that tend to be added to periodically throughout the life of the farm.

It’s not uncommon to visit a farm and see bins from multiple decades, some placed in locations where they’d never be put today, Timlick says.

One option is to move the bins, but it’s rarely a first choice. “You can do it, but you have to build a compacted gravel base to take the weight of the bin, and of course pour new concrete,” Timlick says. “It’s not cheap or easy.”

Jayas agrees it’s not a common practice, but says like any infrastructure, bins can wear out and reach the end of their useful life cycle. This is when the changes tend to occur, he says.

“When it is time to replace that bin, spend some time thinking how to make grain handling more efficient,” he says. “Don’t just plunk a bin back down in the same spot because it’s always been there.”

Among the toughest problems to deal with are the remote bins. Almost every farm has some, and they tend to be on fields a long way from the yard site because it’s too far to carry crops from the field during the busy harvest season. That saves hassle for the farmer during that critical period, but arguably what’s really happening is that the trouble is just being deferred until later.

“The issue becomes one of accessibility,” Timlick says. “You’ll have to clear snow, for example. And how easy will it be to get in and out of the site?”

Then there’s also the nature of the remote bins themselves. Almost always there’s no power to these sites and therefore no aeration. They can be tough to monitor, and sometimes get overlooked or checked less than is optimal just because they can be hard to access regularly. It makes for a two-pronged management challenge for growers, Timlick says.

“You really want to be sure the grain going into these bins is dry, especially if it’s likely you’ll be holding it until later in the year,” Timlick says.

Then there’s the question of how to manage deliveries out of these less-than-ideal locations. Some farmers purposely schedule their marketing from these locations around this challenge. They either ship early in the marketing cycle — late fall or early winter — when the bins are easier to access. Or they close the bin up for the winter and won’t make deliveries until spring or the following summer.

“Those really are your two best options,” Timlick says. Of course that won’t always be possible either, so when deliveries are coming out of these sites in mid-winter, advanced planning becomes important. Snow needs to be cleared, backup plans in case equipment fails or trucks get stuck need to be in place, and generally there needs to be a higher level of management.

Terry Shaw of the MTA stresses that ultimately, anything that smooths out this on-farm interaction between shipper and hauler will pay dividends to both.

“Everyone wants that shipment to go smoothly and efficiently,” Shaw says. “If we do it right, you’ll put a few dollars in our jeans pocket and we’ll return the favour with good and efficient service.”

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