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 1,000 kilometres and sometimes up to 2,500km to get to east-coast abattoirs.
It was cattle and drovers that opened up the north. Take the Northern Territory: it had less than 500km of formed roads prior to World War II and has 36,000km of them today. Stock-route expansion really took off in the 1960s when no-one thought much about fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
These days, such transportation is an expensive exercise. For cattle travelling more than 1,000 kilometres the transport component costs around $150 per head – up to 40 percent of the cattle’s market price. It makes sense, therefore, to take stock of the existing infrastructure and investigate how these vast journeys can be improved.
But when a farmer’s shifting cattle across three states, who works out how and where the money is best spent?
Modelling cattle movements
CSIRO has conducted the most comprehensive mapping to date of the cattle supply chain in northern Australia (see Note 2), developing a model called TraNSIT, short for ‘Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool’.
The TraNSIT project, funded jointly by the Australian, Western Australian, Northern Territory and Queensland governments, aimed 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.
The lead researcher behind TraNSIT, CSIRO’s 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.
The TraNSIT project incorporated data from 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, the project team assessed 89,000 unique trips between enterprises.
The research team didn’t rely solely on data from government departments; they also sought input from those who, arguably, know most about route-planning: Australia’s truckies.
“If you’re going to discuss transport and trucks, you’ve got to have truckies in the room,” says Liz Schmidt, director of Schmidt Livestock Transport in Townsville and past president of the Australian Livestock and Rural Transporters Association.
The TraNSIT team’s consultation with industry, says Schmidt, has been “refreshing” and was especially valuable for the “mum and dad” trucking operations with limited resources.
To understand this section, you need to know your rigs: B-Doubles (three decks), Type 1s (four decks) and Type 2s (six decks).
A B-Double truck costs $4.10 per kilometre to run if it’s travelling at 40 kilometres per hour but far less – a mere $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 farms’ access to higher-productivity vehicles, and that may include links to rail.
“Identifying the bottlenecks that stop those higher-productivity vehicles getting through –that’s what I would like to see done,” says Schmidt. “Those vehicles doing the same task over greater distances can pull twice the load for half the greenhouse-gas emissions.”
The TraNSIT project team considered many options, including road upgrades to allow larger combination vehicles to access key supply points, new road connections to reduce the number of detours trucks have to make; new facilities such as abattoirs built closer to key farming regions; better use of rail; changes in regulations governing biosecurity and driver fatigue; and alternative routes/arrangements in the event of extreme weather conditions.
The resulting TraNSIT model identified a number of specific infrastructure investments and policy changes that could benefit the livestock industry in Australia by reducing transport distances and costs, including establishing a new abattoir at Hughenden and fully sealing Queensland’s Hann Highway.
Benefits of a new abattoir in the north
Hughenden, in north-west Queensland, lies at the crossroads of two major highways: the west-east Flinders Highway that connects Mount Isa and Townsville; and the Hann Highway, heading south from Cairns. Currently, livestock from northern Australia must travel to existing abattoirs in South Australia or the east coast of Queensland to be processed.
Using TraNSIT, researchers identified sources of cattle within a catchment area extending 700 kilometres around Hughenden that would be better served by an abattoir closer to home. For those properties, they established that the transport cost per head to a Hughenden-based abattoir would be $16, rather than the $34 it currently costs to cart them, live, much further east – a 50 percent saving on transport costs.
The hypothetical Hughenden abattoir would remove around 1,100 Type 2 trucks, each travelling 380 kilometres, from the roads, and would provide an estimated carbon dioxide emissions saving of 892 tonnes per annum.
Policy and infrastructure applications
Ticks have an enormous impact on road trains in Queensland. Cattle from infested areas are often detoured via the Bruce Highway in less efficient B-Double trucks to avoid time-consuming tick clearing, required to cross the more direct but tick-free zone.
The ticks are a policy issue: Given that cattle are going directly to an abattoir, is tick clearing really necessary?
The road is an infrastructure investment issue: Currently, the route between Clermont and Roma on the Carnarvon and Gregory highways is suitable only for 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, relieving pressure on the Bruce Highway.
For Schmidt, an Inland Highway – simplifying logistics, cutting costs, reducing the risk of having the only useable highway cut by flood, and greater capacity to cart livestock in the wet – is the great hope.
Under the TraNSIT model, such a highway would cut transport costs by 19 percent – and cut 435 tonnes in emissions – per year.
The new transport logistics tool is even able to cater to graziers’ preferences, say, for sending cattle to particular sale yards that offer better prices – a difference, one farmer noted, that “far outstrips the additional transportation costs that we incur by sending them there”.
“TraNSIT is able to accommodate those sorts of choices,” explains CSIRO’s Chris McKay. “Depending on the availability of data, it has the capacity to decide optimal routes based on prices paid by abattoirs, transport distance and the capacity of the abattoir.”
TraNSITioning to the future
CSIRO’s Dr Higgins says the TraNSIT tool gives a truckie’s-eye view of a supply chain by factoring in thousands of small decisions when planning optimal 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,” he 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, Dr Higgins says, CSIRO’s TraNSIT tool is being applied to the cattle industry Australia-wide – mapping about 60,000 origin-to-destination movements that represent the paths taken by the 20 million cattle that are transported across our nation per year.
It will now be applied beyond cattle transport logistics to those of sheep, goats and other livestock as well as to the transport of other agricultural goods, particularly degradable produce.
It’s clear that some of the greatest efficiency savings in Australian agribusiness can be made in transport. And perhaps the greatest lesson being learned is that of the advantage afforded by taking a national, cross-border approach.
Want to know more? Check out:
CSIRO’s project summary
Northern Territory Government 10 Year Road Strategy
‘A model for simulating infrastructure and policy interventions in agriculture logistics: Application to the northern Australia beef industry’.