Potholes and blind corners: five themes from the livestock transporters conference

Eric Barker, 25/03/2024

LRTAQ president Gerard Johnson opening the national conference in Toowoomba this morning.

LIVESTOCK transporters say foresight is needed to smooth out the potholes and blind corners ahead for industry’s most important roles of keeping animals moving through the supply chain.

Some of the industry’s biggest operators descended on the Goods Shed in Toowoomba last week for the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association and Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of Queensland annual conference.

The conference was looking at “the road ahead” for the industry, particularly in the face of ambitious Government and corporate targets to reduce emissions. The pressure to reduce appears to be a bit of a blind corner, with most of the technology in its infancy and hard to imagine working on some of the roughest and most remote roads in the country.

More immediately the industry has some serious potholes to negotiate, with ageing and damaged infrastructure, a shortage of skilled drivers and maintenance costs on the increase.

Beef Central has compiled five of the big themes from the conference floor and the panel discussions.

Urgent need to address regional roads

Most panel sessions and transport operators who spoke to Beef Central mentioned the state of the road network across Australia – which they said had suffered from severe weather events and a lack of maintenance.

Hot off the heels of local elections in Queensland and with State and Federal elections coming up, there was a wide-ranging discussion about the way roads are funding and how the industry could be communicating its issues with roads.

Asked what the Government’s number one priority for the livestock transport industry should be, LRTAQ president Gerard Johnson said it was always roads.

“The roads we drive on everyday are probably our biggest challenge as an industry, with the amount of money they cost us in wear and tear and maintenance,” Mr Johnson said.

Asked about what a prospective Liberal National Party State Government would do about the roads if it was to be elected later this year, shadow minister for transport and main roads Steve Minnikin said he was keen to set up a regular meeting with the trucking association and to prioritise clearing a backlog of maintenance on regional roads.

Long-time councillor, former Cambooya mayor and incumbent Toowoomba Regional councillor Carol Taylor said local governments were in a tough position, taking a lot of the responsibility for regional roads with a decreasing share of the funding.

“We know our road network is not where it should be, we know that councils across are spending $1b less than they should be on road maintenance,” Ms Taylor said.

“It is really difficult because local governments get 3c/dollar of all tax revenue in Australia. With that in mind, we really feel let down by the other levels of Government.”

Bridges were also an issue, with several speakers mentioning the current situation with the Bremer River bridge on the entrance to Brisbane, which is forcing trucks to detour around the river on their way into some key markets.

Martin’s Stock Haulage compliance manager Graeme Hoare also said he was also concerned about the bridges on secondary roads, which were limiting farm gate access.

“When Governments plan to allocate funding for these bridges, it is hard to get these bridges to ‘stack up’ to attract funding and they are never going to ‘stack up’,” Mr Hoare said.

“We have come to stage where you can’t cross these bridges and there are pigs, cattle and sheep on the other side of them.”

Calls for more effluent tanks and wash down bays

On the infrastructure front, a lack places to wash down trucks and empty effluent tanks was one of the most consistent topics of the two days.

One of the first speakers of the was Toowoomba’s incumbent mayor Geoff McDonald who said if the Government wanted to legislate effluent disposal, they needed to fun it.

The practicality of effluent disposal points was a little more challenging. One transport operator called for wash down and effluent disposal facilities in the same place.

“A dump site is only going to get rid of one tank, but we need somewhere to washdown the whole unit,” the transporter said.

“We are not doing any good trying to dump effluent on the side of the road because we know there are any councils who want to deal with it. But dumping and wash down are working towards the same goal.”

“The transport industry has moved forward to contain our effluent, but no one on either side of us has done anything to be able to dispose of it.”

Incumbent councillor Carol Taylor said she thought there was an opening for private enterprise to run a wash down bay in the Toowoomba area. She council can’t afford to put the effluent infrastructure in itself and was a responsibility of the State Government.

Mr Johnson said a lot of people in the industry were of the opinion that both forms of infrastructure needed to be built.

“Talking about the effluent has been going on for years and something really needs to be done about it – not just effluent dumps, we need washdown bays too,” he said.

“If we ever had lumpy skin and foot and mouth disease, the industry would come to a stop, trucks would need to be washed out and we would need a lot more washdown bays.”

“New norm” for diesel prices

High and rapidly fluctuating diesel prices have been one of the big and unavoidable costs the livestock transport industry has been negotiating. In recent years, many transporters have been adding a levy to accommodate for the fluctuating fuel costs.

Australasian Convenience & Petroleum Marketers Association chief executive officer Mark McKenzie said several factors were contributing to the high diesel prices.

“In the news they will talk about the price of oil in US dollars, we have to actually look at what it means with the exchange rate. One of the reasons we are seeing sustained high prices at the moment is because the exchange rate is at near long-term lows,” Mr McKenzie

“But we don’t burn oil in trucks, we burn diesel which has to go through a refinery process. Through Covid, we saw a number of oil fields and refineries were put into mothballs and paused – not all of that stock has come back out the other side.

“We are also seeing companies not investing in new refineries and being cautious about investing in extending the life of existing refineries because there is doubt about what the global policy makers are doing in relation to the future of traditional fuels.”

Mr McKenzie said before Covid, refining costs were adding about 4c/l and now it is averaging about 25c/l – it has been as high as 55c. He said we are likely seeing a new norm in diesel prices.

“Pulling out my dented and damaged crystal ball, I don’t foresee any significant shocks going forward but I also don’t see any significant downward pressure,” he said.

“We are really looking at a situation of a new price norm, which is a challenge for you as livestock transporters and a challenge for Government managing the inputs to the economy.”

Panels cold on electric trucks

With fuel cost being an issue and Government pressure to reduce emissions, several speakers addressed some of the options for the industry in the future economy.

While options like synthetic diesel and hydrogen powered trucks were all canvasses – there was little enthusiasm for electrifying the fleet.

Many issues with electric trucks were talked about, including a serious increase in the weight of a vehicle, problems with charging and battery range.

Australian Trucking Association CEO Matthew Munro put out a blunt message about electric vehicles.

“We already have EVs, they are on the road now, they are a real option and for some applications they are quite good,” he said.

“But for heavier long-distance transport, they are just not the solution at this point. Hydrogen may be, we don’t have the infrastructure but we should keep the door open to it.”

Welfare for animals and people

In many ways the transport industry is the face of the livestock industry’s animal welfare credentials and there was plenty of discussion about its responsibilities in this subject.

The industry is currently having to demonstrate its credentials and there was plenty of talk about some of the tough conversations that need to be had about whether animals are fit to load.

Work is also happening to identify road hazards, near misses and put in measures to help drivers on certain roads.

While animal welfare was one thing, many about the specialisation of livestock transporters and the importance of the industry being able to keep drivers. North Queensland producer and transporter John Lethbridge said the value trained livestock truck drivers was not appreciated enough.

“You just can’t pull a bloke off a bar stool and put him behind a $1.5m truck with all those animals – flying a Qantas jet is much easier,” he said.

“There are so many skills, you need to know cattle and driving – I have been doing it for decades and don’t profess to know it all.”


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