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Against The Grain

VANCOUVER, B. C. - Ken Wozney has spent a lifetime in the production and hauling of agricultural commodities, having been born and raised on a family farm in Manitoba, and more recently working in gra...

VANCOUVER, B. C. –Ken Wozney has spent a lifetime in the production and hauling of agricultural commodities, having been born and raised on a family farm in Manitoba, and more recently working in grain transport operations.

In 1994 he was employed with Cando Contracting as an equipment operator, and later as a project manager for the company. That job took him across the country, pricing jobs and installing, repairing, removing and cleaning railway lines and right-of- ways.

“This job gave me great knowledge of road restrictions, municipalitiy/ county laws, and how the railway operated,” he said during a panel discussion at a Westac conference entitled Freight Demand Outlook: Is Western Canada’s Transportation System up to it?

Wozney began working for RTM Transport almost a decade ago, first as a truck driver learning the industry and the location of plants and mills. Then about eight years ago, he stepped out of the truck and into the office, to become a dispatcher, directing trucks in and out of feed mills, plants, and farm yards. For the past two years he has been an office manager for RTM.

Coupled with RTM management responsibility, a year ago he became the Reeve for the municipality of Strathclair, Man. It has a population of 900, and located about 120 km from the Saskatchewan border is a municipality made up of grain and livestock operations.

“As you can see, my history shows that I’ve been involved in the grain, railway and trucking industries for many years,” said the politically-savvy grain hauling expert. “I understand the challenges that are faced, right from the producer to the receiver.”

Currently, RTM operates 60 Suber-B hopper grain units that provide service to the grain market across the Prairie provinces and North Dakota.

In the past 23 years of business, RTM has become a very active and aggressive grain hauling company, according to Wozney.

“It has changed along with the industry to provide the professional and on-time service that farmers and the grain companies have come to expect,” he said.

In the past few years there have been many challenges when it comes to grain movement, from elevator closures, grain company mergers, road restrictions, hours-of- service changes, and fuel and repair costs, all of which have had a huge impact on transport companies like RTM and its customers, according to Wozney.

“We had to find a way to work around these issues, and make the best of it, for all the parties involved.”

In recent years, the grain producing and hauling industry has been affected by the loss of the Crow freight rate subsidy, with the subsequent closure of a large number of local elevators and a dramatic decline in small family farms. There has also been growth in the processing industry, such as ethanol and canola crushing plants, all of which have caused a dramatic increase in truck traffic on municipal, provincial and national roads.

“The Crow has been replaced with more and larger feedlots: large hog, chicken, and turkey feeding operations, with the intent of using up the feed grains locally rather than (shipping by) expensive rail,” said Wozney.

Most local elevators have been replaced with a few, but not always well-placed “high throughput” plants, according to Wozney. Within 50 miles of his own community, there have been 35 elevators closed, which have been replaced by five high throughput operations, with a greater distance to deliver.

“A lot of farms that used to haul two to five miles to their local elevator are now faced with a minimum of 15-25 miles,” he said.

Furthermore, feed grains that used to go to the local elevator are now being trucked a lengthy 180-250 mile distance to Red River Valley feedlots in Manitoba, or up to 700 miles to “Feedlot Alley,” near Lethbridge, Alta. Likewise, canola now goes direct to the crusher, instead of to a local elevator. The raw product is then railed to the West Coast or Thunder Bay, Ont., with the trip completed by ship.

“With the high demand for canola oil, we are now seeing farmers sow a larger portion of their land to canola each year with above average yields becoming more common,” said Wozney, who has a political and corporate concern about rural traffic. “This naturally adds to the number of loads being trucked,” he added.

Small family farms that used to deliver to the local elevator with three-and five-tonne trucks are now being replaced with large corporate farms that are using five-, six-and eight-axle units to deliver grain to distant facilities, he added.

“Where we used to see mostly (straight) trucks, and the odd semi on some farms, we are now starting to see semis on most farms, and farmers are now starting to purchase their second semi,” he pointed out.

The processing of grain into oil and ethanol has also created a huge demand for wheat, corn and canola stocks, said the RTM office manager, with three large ethanol plants in Lloydmisnter, Mennedosa and Belle Plain.

“It is my understanding that for these facilities to operate at full capacity, they each need approximately 30 Super-B loads per day, for the 250 days a year they’re open for receiving.”

Wozney noted that two large canola crushing plans are under construction in Yorkton, Sask. Each facility will require nearly 70 Super-B loads per day to run at capacity, he estimates. “Along with this canola explosion in Yorkton, several small surrounding towns are closing their small elevators, and the grain will now be trucked to large expanded facilities in Yorkton.”

The canola crushing plant at Clavet, Sask. has doubled in size, while Nipawin, Sask., Harrowby, Man. and Altona, Man. are all being upgraded or expanded.

“Keep in mind that the canola meal needs to be hauled out of these plants as well,” said Wozney.

RTM, along with its sister company Conquest, has grown from a five to a 60-truck operation in the past 13 years, and it is coping with increasing customer demand.

Wozney indicated that the ex-p ansion would be even greater if the company could source more qualified drivers.

“The work is there and as you can see, more is to come. We could increase our fleet by at least 20% over the next year and a half if qualified people could be found,” he said of a problem experienced throughout the grain-hauling industry.

But with truck traffic increasing on rural roads each year, Wozney has concerns about the infrastructure in the region.

“With the abandonment of rail lines, the massive closures of elevators and the termination of the rail subsidies, we have put an enormous amount of truck traffic on our roads. Couple this with the growth of local processing for canola oil, proposed biodiesel and ethanol plants, and other specialty products now, and in the future, and you can see that roads will suffer the consequences,” he told Westac members, before mentioning a more recent traffic concern. “Add to this, Winnipeg is applying to be the new ‘inland’ port.”

These economic issues should be a huge concern for grain companies that are designing new facilities, Wozney suggests.

It’s a question of service – considering that the produce and trucking companies that are hauling product are eager to avoid waiting in line-ups.

“Time is money for everyone,” he said. “The faster the trucks are put through the system, the more likely they are to come back.”

With an increase in travel over gravel rural roads, transport firms like RTM must cope with increased vehicle maintenance, repairs, fuel, and replacement costs. Wozney would prefer that all levels of government plan for direct routes through rural roads, which could then connect to municipal routes (RTAC), to minimize costs for the farmer, trucking firms, grain companies, and local government.

“It’s very important for all parties that are involved in the movement, to understand that if it’s not the most direct route and the units are not loaded to legal RTAC weights, the costs are increased to everything
– including the environment.”

To tackle this dilemma, Wozney suggested that all levels of governments get an infrastructure plan and funding in place,”sooner rather than later,” as the situation has digressed in recent years.

Another area of concern for the grain hauling industry is a lack of clean-out facilities, and the potential for cross-contamination.

“We are now faced with not only the possibility of fertilizer loads being contaminated with grain from poorly-cleaned trailers, to now having customers asking for cleaner trailers to combat grain-to-grain contamination. (That’s) because of disease in the grain or specialty crops like mustard, that they can’t clean canola out of.”

As a result, drivers are being asked to clean trailers on a regular basis. Wash-outs between loads are becoming common practice, at an average of $100 a wash – an expense that must be factored into transport pricing.

Drivers are being asked to keep trailers clean, but they aren’t permitted to clean out trucks on public roadways, added Wozney. Yet, not all of the grain and fertilizer companies are supplying clean-out facilities.

“This is an area that the provincial government should be of help, by forcing facilities to supply proper clean-out areas, and developing strategically-placed clean-out areas throughout the province.”

Wozney predicts that trucking in the grain industry will face a huge downloading of costs in the upcoming years, with major competition from farmers who use improperly-registered trucks and farm fuel. Transport companies that haul grain also suffer from erratic fuel costs, deteriorating roads, and what Wozney calls “experimental environmental motors,” which he believes can cause excessive downtime, due to inadequate repair facilities.

He also fears the “forced use of biodiesel,” in a harsh environment that Wozney said, has proven to be too cold for its use. “I hope that the people that mandate it will be there to help us unthaw the fuel lines on those cold, windy, prairie roads.”

Otherwise, the future of the grain hauling industry looks promising, according to Wozney, with new and larger plants being built. However, he hopes that companies that are planning new infrastructure are doing their research, and designing a receiving system that can effectively handle the production of the plant. In this effort, Wozney suggest to Westac logistical leaders that grain companies and/or governments that are trying to solve this dilemma should consult with experienced trucking firms.

“Remember, they are the ones that sit in your line-ups at the plants or are working their way through the municipalities, to provide great service to the rate payers and the grain companies.”


‘The faster the trucks are put through the system, the more likely they are to come back.’

Ken Wozney, RTM

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