Feds beef-up Australia’s livestock transit routes

Pictured: an Australian livestock-hauling road train is parked at the side of a road. Livestock haulers will greatly benefit from a programme of livestock-haulage related road upgrades in Northern Australia.  (Photo: CSIRO and Dr Ian Watson).

Pictured: an Australian livestock-hauling road train is parked at the side of a road. Livestock haulers will greatly benefit from a programme of livestock-haulage related road upgrades in Northern Australia. (Photo: CSIRO and Dr Ian Watson).

Cattle truck drivers have welcomed the first of a series of upgrades to roads in remote regions of Australia. It’s part of the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program, a A$100 million (US$72 million) Australian Federal Government initiative to upgrade rural livestock logistics.

The first project, which was completed recently, was the road sealing works on the Dajarra to Cloncurry road.

Gerard Johnson of general freight and livestock trucking operation Gerard Johnson Transport, who is also the vice president of the Livestock and Rural Transporters Association of Queensland, said that sealing the road “opens it” to trucking operations. He explained that road sealing results in less maintenance for trucks (less wear and tear on tyres and suspension), greater fuel efficiency, the ability to go faster and the ability to drive in all-weather conditions.

“A few more roads do need sealing; that will be a big deal to the industry,” Johnson said.

Sealing approximately 4.5 kilometers (km) of the Dajarra-Cloncurry road cost A$3.22 million (US$2.3 million), according to the Federal Government. The project will improve productivity and travel times, reduce road roughness, reduce harm to cattle, and help stop heavy freight vehicles from getting bogged down in wet conditions. It will also reduce the management costs of the road, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads states. Road safety will also be improved by providing more sealed road for overtaking vehicles and by improving visibility through reducing airborne dust and flying rock.

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The underlying reason for sealing the Dajarra to Cloncurry road is to improve livestock trucking productivity. The area around Dajarra/Cloncurry is used for grazing cattle. Cloncurry itself, a small town that’s 1,467.64 km (911.95 miles) northwest-by-west of the state capital, Brisbane, is particularly important to livestock trucking. And that’s because Cloncurry is the location of Queensland’s second-busiest livestock handling and selling facility. The yards can handle about 20,000 cattle at any one time and over 325,000 cattle pass through Cloncurry in the course of a year.

The town is also an important stop-off point for cattle for two other reasons. The first is biosecurity control. There’s a cattle-tick (Rhipicephalus (Boophilus) microplus) present in parts of Queensland that causes livestock illness and death. Queensland is zoned into two: tick-free and tick-infested. Inland Queensland is tick-free while large parts of the eastern coastal strip are tick-infested. Cattle being trucked from the infested zone to the tick-free zone in Queensland have to visit places such as Cloncurry for a quick, pest-eradicating, chemical-bath. Incidentally, researchers from the national scientific agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), found that livestock truckers driving in the tick-infested zone will deliberately choose longer routes to stay within that zone, simply to avoid the stoppage time lost to treat cattle. If truckers could be induced to take a more direct route then it would save A$2.3 million in transport costs in southeast Queensland alone.

A major marshalling point

Secondly, Cloncurry is a major marshalling point in far north Queensland for over-the-road trucking of livestock for international export. Cattle exports take place from several ports. These include Karumba (56.68 km; 221.63 miles north-by -east of Cloncurry), Darwin (1,381.94 km; 858.70 miles to the northwest) or Townsville (685.18 km; 425.75 miles east-by-north).

Of the three, Darwin easily handles the most cattle (365,204 head a year), of which 76 percent are exported to nearby Indonesia. Townsville handles 182,262 head, 98 percent of which are exported to Indonesia and Vietnam. Karumba, despite being comparatively nearby, exports hardly any cattle – less than 1,900 head in the 2018 financial year. By contrast, Karumba handled over 13,000 head of export livestock in 2015. However, livestock exports – and therefore trucking operations from around northern Queensland to that port – are likely to pick up at Karumba for a variety of reasons including the completion of a recent channel dredging programme.

Upgrading the Dajarra-Cloncurry Road is just one of several livestock-trucking related road upgrades planned for northern Australia. In total there are 18 projects planned in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland under the Beef Roads programme. These include more works to upgrade more roads to a standard two-lane seal, rehabilitation and widening works in some places and, in one case, an upgrade to allow the passage of road trains.

“The Beef Roads programme is great!” Johnson enthused.

Funding for the Beef Roads programme is in place until the 2019-2020 financial year. The Federal Government is particularly targeting upgrades to northern Australian cattle trucking roads following an intensive research programme by the CSIRO.

Australia is home to a herd of 28.5 million cattle; (by contrast, Australia’s human population in 2019 is only about 25 million) of which about 12.5 million head of cattle are located in the northern parts of Australia. Around 90 percent of those cattle are destined for live export. But Australia is a big, mostly empty, landmass which means that more than half of all the livestock travel over 1,000km (621 miles) between production, processing and markets, according to the CSIRO. Transport costs comprise as much as 40 percent of the final market price of cattle.

So any transport efficiency gains are valuable.

TRANSIT simulation informs decisions on road-building

Some years ago, the CSIRO started a two-year research project that evaluated the entire northern Australian livestock system by simulating over 1.5 million vehicle movements between 50,000 enterprises over five years on 88,000 routes. The research took into account truck configuration, cattle weight, road conditions, regulatory requirements and a variety of other matters.

The resulting software simulation tools, the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool (“TRANSIT”) and the Transport Operations Simulator, highlighted several areas for improvement. In addition to upgrading the roads used by livestock transporters in northern Australia as discussed in this article, the tool highlighted optimal locations for new yards to minimise cattle and driver fatigue. Another improvement identified was the establishment of a direct corridor for cattle-carrying road trains between Clermont (which is in the tick-infested zone) in northeast Queensland, and Roma which is 435.95 km (270.89 miles) distant to the south-south-east. Roma’s in the tick-free zone. The direct road-train corridor enables the abolition of tick-clearing requirements for cattle transported to abattoirs, which saves transport time and costs. Roma incidentally connects 441.87 km (274.56 miles) east-by-south along the Warrego Highway, which is Queensland’s principal east-west freight highway, to the Port of Brisbane. Although Brisbane is predominantly known as Queensland’s main container-import port, it also handles a small volume of livestock exports. In the 2018 financial year it handled about 12,000 head of cattle, which were primarily exported to Japan, according to a port spokesman.

But that’s not it for TRANSIT.

The system is being used to map the transport of 95 percent of Australian agriculture. It is being applied to the movements of grain, dairy, poultry, rice, cotton, pigs, sugar, sheep, forestry products, other crops and stock feed, among other things. It is also applied to other non-agricultural commodities. CSIRO principal research scientist and logistics expert, Dr. Andrew Higgins, told FreightWaves that the TRANSIT system now covers over 600,000 freight routes, encompassing road and rail. CSIRO is also adding maritime shipping to the system too.

TRANSIT is also now being used overseas in Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam “to address supply chain inefficiencies and cross-border bottlenecks,” the CSIRO reports.