Discussions about Prairie grain transportation efficiency tend to focus on railways, railways — and railways.
Often lost in the century-plus-old feud between farmers and the railroads is the connection between them — the truckers. The system can’t get along without them, and they’ve become even more important due to elevator and branch line closures.
We contacted some grain haulers to get some views of system efficiency from behind the wheel, and we also got some suggestions on how farmers, elevator staff and government can make their job easier.
Be ready and organized
First and foremost, drivers want farmers to be ready for their arrival and loading.
“You pull in and the guy’s battery is dead in his auger and he has no booster cables — and ‘I left my gas can in my other half-ton!,’” says Jordan Peters with a laugh.
Neal Galey of N & L Galey Land & Cattle says the new generation of farmers is more organized, which makes it less frustrating for drivers. He’s been in the business for about 30 years, and when he drove, he could tell who was best organized just by talking to them on the phone: they were the ones asking for the most details to best plan their day and make the process as efficient as possible.
After 10 years as an owner-operator with Somerville Farms, Peters has seen loading equipment improve, and points out faster loading speeds make a difference in hauling more in a day.
“Most guys use either an eight-inch or 10-inch (auger) for loading,” adds Redline Transport owner and spare driver Al Lepp. “It’s good to get a truck in and out of the yard in an hour if you can.”
Farms are getting bigger and faster, says Galey.
“They’re moving larger amounts of tonnage in a shorter period of time. And organization is key, it has to be, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Farmers’ yards have improved too, and Lepp says more and more are getting set up to provide enough space for Super-Bs to manoeuvre, “whether that’s on their approach, getting safely in and out of their lane, or just getting enough room around the bin yard to get under the auger.”
“Nowadays, there’s better loading equipment and people have thought out their yards better for large trucks,” adds Peters. “I haul loads for some big farmers and it’s great; you’re in and out of there.”
But there are still occasions when he has to have a walk around a yard first to review how to best get in and out.
An outsider looking in might be led to believe that the availability of online maps and GPS has made country grain movement a snap, but drivers insist they still need voice or text contact with producers.
“There’s so many things that can go wrong in the country with a Super-B: just take one wrong road,” says Lepp.
Directions are still best communicated between producer and driver, and when Lepp dispatches trucks, he has his driver call the farmer to find out how to get there and provide an estimated time of arrival.
Mobile devices have been a boon for reaching farmers wherever they might be, Lepp adds. Farmers now are far more accessible than back when they might be miles away from their only phone — the landline in the kitchen.
Peters highly recommends the Prairie Locator app, which can take co-ordinates and provide a driver the exact location of any farm on the Prairies.
There are still long waits at Prairie grain elevators at times, but improved scheduling has made a big difference. Better communication between the producer, elevator and trucking company has been a key factor in reducing lineups, Lepp says.
“Sometimes we get direct contact from the elevator asking if we can haul from producers, other times the producer calls us. But usually we have a window to work with, and then we fine-tune that to make sure that that date suits the elevator still or the farmer.”
There’s no advantage to the newest technology if an elevator doesn’t also have people available who are actively involved in the receiving process, Lepp says.
“It’s only as good as the people running it,” he says. “The vast majority have very efficient operations going, whether it’s good scales, probing at the receiving lane, quick unload pits, and people available to help the truck unload.”
Galey agrees wait times overall have gotten shorter. Most elevators have become more efficient with organization, making it less frustrating to producers and carriers alike.
“It’s a lot better than it used to be,” Galey says, pointing out terminals have a limited amount of time with larger trains being loaded. “In some cases they’re being given, say, 24 hours to load 120 cars of grain. You figure each car to be 90 tonnes, you can see the daunting path they have getting this grain co-ordinated to come in on time.”
Drivers are responsible for documentation, but elevators can assist in ensuring everything works smoothly.
“There’s so many varieties now, grades and classes of commodities, that it has to be specifically done, checked and double-checked before unloading the truck at the elevator,” says Lepp. “The most important thing that the elevator staff can do is double-check what the driver has on before dumping.”
It only takes a moment to verify a load, but an unchecked mistake can be extremely expensive, Lepp says.
Vanishing cleanout areas
One pet peeve drivers have is with disappearing cleanout spots at elevators and fertilizer plants.
“The amounts of facilities that are starting to not allow drivers to have an area where they can safely clean their trailer, yet they’re demanding perfectly clean trailers, it’s an equation that doesn’t make sense,” complains Lepp.
Commercial truckers need to remove residue from their previous haul before they load other commodities, but the convenient areas that elevator and fertilizer facilities once provided have dried up.
But there’s a feeling among some drivers that the fault lays within their own industry.
Peters notes the availability of cleanouts was once widespread.
“But a lot of places, because they want to put the truck through faster, they don’t allow cleanouts. And they also claim it’s for safety reasons.”
But Peters believes a big part of the blame has to be shouldered by drivers themselves.
He recalls a fertilizer plant whose cleanout area was accompanied by a sign warning it would be closed permanently if drivers didn’t keep the area tidy. Before long it became a mess and the firm followed through with its threat.
Peters thinks similar incidents are behind other closures, and Galey agrees.
“Everybody was warned ahead of time that if these areas weren’t maintained that they were just going to be removed from the site, and ultimately, that’s exactly what happened,” Galey says.
“And now that they’ve closed those cleanouts, you’re seeing piles of grain on the side of the road or truck stops,” Peters adds.
Road restrictions are another grievance for truckers.
“They should be allowing empty trucks to travel the paved roads because it’s killing our gravel roads,” says Lepp.
He says current practices create added danger for drivers — as well as inefficiencies — but the industry’s concerns have fallen on deaf ears in Manitoba’s government.
Similarly, Peters believes the Saskatchewan government is offloading highway repair costs onto rural municipalities at the expense of their gravel roads.
“Those other roads they don’t want trucks on, it’s just diverting the problems somewhere else,” he says.
Peters also believes spring road restrictions are causing confusion, especially for out-of-province drivers.
“If you’re not from that area, when you turn off a gravel road onto an eight-tonne highway, and there’s no sign, how do you know where it starts and where it ends?”
When driving an empty truck on a Manitoba road that only permitted 60 per cent axle weight, Peters ended up with a ticket for overweight on his front axle.
“When there’s a ban on a road, you’ve got to be very vigilant to find out what kind of load you can haul to that town, because there’s a lot of times I showed up at a fertilizer plant and somebody from another province shows up and he’s hauling 44 tonnes when he should be hauling 32. Because he didn’t know.”