It’s mustering season in northern Australia; stock camps are busy with the bellowing, bulldust and sweat of cattle being herded by horse and helicopter, and trucked by road trains, criss-crossing thousands of kilometres of red dirt and road to ports and abattoirs.
These cattle face the longest journey of any Australian commodity—on average close to 1000km, and sometimes up to 2500km to get to east coast abattoirs.
It was cattle and drovers that opened up the north. Take the Northern Territory alone, it had less than 500km of formed roads prior to World War II and has 36,000 km today (see Note 1). The stock route expansion really took off in the 1960s when no one thought of fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s now an expensive exercise. For cattle travelling more than 1000km the transport component costs $150 per head or up to 40 per cent of market price.
It makes sense to also take stock of the infrastructure and investigate how those vast journeys can be improved. But across three states, who works out where the money should be best spent?
CSIRO has conducted the most comprehensive mapping of the cattle supply chain in northern Australia (see Note 2), developing a model called TRANSIT, short for the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool, funded by the Australian, Western Australian, Northern Territory and Queensland governments.
The aim of the project has been to identify key investments, large and small, at critical points in the supply chain, as well as policy changes that might allow for better planning.
CSIRO’s lead researcher behind TRANSIT, Dr Andrew Higgins, says it’s not just about finding financial savings.
“Other advantages from a more efficient supply chain are improved safety and welfare of the live animals and the truck drivers themselves taking these long journeys, reduced emissions, and a more sustainable industry at a time of growth,” Dr Higgins says.
If you remember anything about combinations from school maths, imagine this: The TRANSIT project incorporated data on 12,000 properties, finishing farms, sale yards, feedlots, export yards, rest stops, abattoirs and ports; and 15,000 road segments ranked according to highway, major road or minor road, sealed or unsealed, among many other factors.
In all, there were 89,000 unique trips between enterprises to assess.
The model developed hasn’t just relied on data from government departments.
Liz Schmidt is director of Schmidt Livestock Transport in Townsville and past president of the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association.
“If you’re going to discuss transport and trucks, you’ve got to have truckies in the room,” she says. The TRANSIT team’s consultation with industry has been “refreshing” and especially valuable for the “mum and dad” trucking operations with limited resources, she says.
To understand this story you need to know your rigs: B-Doubles (3 decks), Type 1s (4 decks) and Type 2s (6 decks).
A B-Double truck costs $4.10 per kilometre if it’s travelling at 40km/hr but far less, $2.35 per kilometre, at 100km/hr. The efficiencies are greater for Type 1 and greater still for Type 2 trucks capable of pulling far more stock.
It’s not only about establishing the most direct routes, it’s also about building infrastructure that increases access to higher productivity vehicles, which may include links to rail.
“Identifying the bottle necks that stop those higher productivity vehicles getting through, that’s what I would like to see done,” says Liz Schmidt. “Those vehicles doing the same task over greater distances can pull twice the load for half the greenhouse gas emissions.”
The project considered many options including road upgrades to allow larger combination vehicles, new road connections to reduce detours, new facilities such as abattoirs built closer to the farm, better use of rail, changes in biosecurity regulations and driver fatigue regulations, and alternatives in the event of extreme weather conditions.
The TRANSIT model identified a number of specific infrastructure investments and policy changes, among them the possible advantages of a new abattoir at Hughenden and a fully sealed Hann Highway, both in Queensland.
Hughenden is in north west Queensland and at the crossroads of two major highways; the west-east Flinders Highway connecting Mt Isa and Townsville and the Hann Highway heading south from Cairns. Livestock from northern Australia to be processed currently travel to South Australia or the east coast of Queensland to existing abattoirs.
Using TRANSIT, researchers identified sources of cattle within a catchment of 700km from Hughenden that would be better served by an abattoir closer to home. For those properties, they established that the transport cost per head would be $16 rather than the $34 it would cost by carting them, live, much further east—50 per cent savings on transport costs.
This hypothetical abattoir would remove 1100 Type 2 trucks, each travelling 380 km, from the roads and provide an estimated carbon dioxide emissions saving of 892 tonnes per annum.
The tick has an enormous impact on road trains in Queensland. Cattle from infested areas are often detoured via the Bruce Highway in less efficient B-Doubles to avoid time-consuming tick clearing required to cross the more direct, tick-free zone.
The tick is a policy issue: Given cattle are going directly to an abattoir, is tick clearing necessary?
The road is an infrastructure investment issue: The route between Clermont and Roma on the Carnarvon and Gregory highways allows Type 1 vehicles. If it were upgraded to allow for Type 2 trucks all the way to the abattoirs, those larger, more efficient vehicles could take the direct route and relieve pressure on the Bruce Highway.
For Liz Schmidt it’s the great hope of an Inland Highway—simplifying logistics, cutting costs, reducing the risk of a highway cut by flood and greater capacity to cart livestock in the wet.
Under the TRANSIT model this would cut transport costs by 19 per cent—and cut 435 tonnes in emissions per year.
CSIRO’s Dr Higgins says that beyond cattle, TRANSIT will now be applied to other agricultural transport, particularly degradable produce.
Dr Higgins says the TRANSIT tool is a key to that development. It gives a truckie’s-eye view of a supply chain by factoring in thousands of small decisions in planning routes.
“By aggregating all those routes, we have for the first time a holistic view and can see clearly where the critical points for investment are and benefits to all enterprises,” Dr Higgins says.
“The beef industry has faced difficult times with drought and stoppages to live export but now there is a focus on northern Australia with all three northern states planning for expansion. Our hope is that this tool can eventually be used to make every long journey as short as it can be, and help to expand sustainable industry.”
Already, he says, it is being applied to the cattle industry Australia-wide—mapping the path of about 60,000 origin-to-destination movements representing 20 million cattle transported in Australia per year. It’s clear that some of the greatest efficiency savings are to be found in transport. And perhaps the greatest lesson being learned is the advantage of a national approach across state borders.