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Road Trains Australia: Preparation is key for cattle transport

15 March 2024

Road Trains of Australia (RTA) is one of the largest cattle transporters in the country, operating primarily in NT, WA and Queensland. Livestock export is a substantial part of their business, along with station-to-station work and carting cattle south to finishing properties and feedlots.

In an average year, the NT operation typically transports 500,000 cattle. This could involve two lifts of the same cattle – one from the station to the quarantine yard and then again from the yard to the port and vessel for shipment to overseas markets like Indonesia. The operation has 24 trucks, each pulling three trailers – equating to a 148-deck capacity.

Being such a large operation, it’s extremely important that everything’s good to go on time. Any delays due to poor preparation or poor infrastructure are multiplied across several vehicles loading at the same place.

Timing is everything 

According to RTA’s NT Manager Nick Vereker (pictured), communication before and during loading ensures there are no surprises and his team can complete the job as efficiently and safely as possible.

“When we get to a station at the agreed time, ideally, we want the cattle right, the yards right and everyone on the same page with weights and numbers,” Nick said.

“In most cases, the cattle have been mustered in the previous days and are either kept in holding yards or adjacent holding paddocks. Making sure they have access to feed and water is essential. 

“We’ve found cattle travel better if they’ve been kept off water for 6–8 hours prior to transport.  Producers are paid on liveweight, so the temptation to load them full of water is always there.”

Keeping cattle off water for 6–8 hours does make a notable difference in their capacity to travel, Nick said, and can be better for their welfare.

“It’s about working out the consequences of loading them full, not travelling well and potentially losing some or having them rejected due to injuries sustained on the truck from going down.

“In our experience, the risk is less if they’ve had the break off water.

Right for the road

Another cause of delays is when people draft cattle onto the trucks at loading, as it can slow the job down and stir up the cattle.

Cattle should be drafted the day before trucks arrive, allowed to recover and settle from handling during drafting and be ready to load when the trucks arrive, Nick said. 

“Most of our NT jobs are 1,000–1,200km and take 12–18 hours, so the cattle have to be right or they don’t travel as well.

“If we’re carting cattle out of Mt Isa or Cloncurry, they may be on the truck for 24–26 hours up to Darwin for export.”

The number of rough roads encountered over lengthy trips means cattle must be fit and strong for the intended journey.

“Generally, live export cattle are in store condition – not fat and heavy – and subsequently they travel very well.

“The normal procedures for complying with fit to load requirements apply up here – same as in the south. We won’t load cattle that are unacceptably lame or blind, or if we don’t think they’re fit to load. 

“If it’s a live export job, they’re rejected at the quarantine yard anyway and the producer has to pay transport to the next location. Everyone knows that reality, so we’re generally not presented with cattle that aren’t fit to load.

“We have the odd one go down, but I reckon 99.9% of the time, everything that walks on, walks off,” Nick said.

Looking after trucks and their drivers

With trucks doing between 140,000km and 180,000km a year, thorough and regular maintenance is critical to successful operations.

“We can’t afford breakdowns and if problems do happen, we’re quick to get support to the truck and make sure the cattle are okay. 

“Everyone in the supply chain has to take responsibility for their part and we take our responsibilities seriously by making sure our gear is right to go,” Nick said.

RTA prioritises their drivers, providing a modern fleet of comfortable vehicles and support for their welfare.

“Without drivers we don’t have business, so it's important that drivers look after themselves, eat properly, take advantage of rest breaks and have a clear head for each day's work,” Nick said.

Less delays lead to more efficient, safe loadings

When asked what the main challenges are that cause delays, Nick said they need cattle yarded before the trucks arrive, so they’re good to load as soon as the trucks roll up and work through the load plan. 

“Good directions and signposting are important in the extensive areas that we work in,” Nick said. 

“Missing a turn can result in delays for everyone involved, so communication between the producer, transport company and drivers is critical.

“All our trucks are equipped with GPS trackers and satellite phones, so we’ve got plenty of modern gear to keep in touch and make sure we’re on track.”

Making sure yards and ramps are in good condition also makes the process more efficient and safer during loading. Pen density is critical for animal welfare and successful journeys over long distances.

“Typically, we load 180–200 lighter cattle or 140–150 heavier cattle onto our triple road trains for live export.  

“We generally work on 10 tonne/deck for our NT work. At this pen density, the cattle are comfortable, have room to get up if any go down and travel pretty well,” Nick said.

“We prefer producers not to try to squeeze a few more on. There’s a higher risk of cattle being injured if they’re too tight, mainly from going down, getting trampled and not being able to get up."

For the distances covered and the number of cattle transported, RTA have very few problems with cattle welfare, Nick said.

Safe transport is everyone’s responsibility

Nick believes most participants in the livestock transport industry are doing a good job and should be proud of the work they do.

“Achieving consistent, high performance is a team effort and requires everyone in the supply chain to do the right thing and to be aware of their responsibilities. 

“MLA’s Transport Hub has some great information for everyone, covering best practice preparation for transport and chain of responsibility.”