Got Milk? Dairy haulers concerned about supply management changes

by Eric Berard

Changes to supply management models have a direct impact on milk shipments.

MONTREAL, Que. — No matter where milk is hauled, questions are being raised about the future of the supply management model that governs how much dairy is produced and processed in Canada.

More than 5,000 people took to the streets of Montreal last month in a protest against international trade deals that could reduce the amount of milk produced by Canadian farms, and related demonstrations continued as recently as this weekend. Further west in Peterborough, Ont., concerns are being raised about the origin of milk that will be processed in an $85-million facility planned by Coca-Cola, although the company stresses that location will be supplied milk from Canadian dairy farmers once it begins operations.

The more milk we import from the U.S. through the recently negotiated USMCA, from Australia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or from the European Union through other free trade agreements, the less milk is produced in here – reducing the volumes moved by Canadian trucks. Yes, there are still loads to move from distribution centers to grocers, but there is plenty of the white stuff moving from farms to processing facilities.

Canada produces 8 billion liters of milk a year, and the Boston Consulting Group suggests 40% of that could be at risk without a supply management model. In the U.S. market that runs without a supply management model, half of the farms produce 97% of the milk. The other farms compete for the 3% that remains.

Canada’s milk carriers are concerned.

“If the farms lose 10, 15, 20% of Canada’s milk supply, we’ll lose the same way. Any time the U.S. gains, we lose,” says Ken Wagers, who with his wife Jill owns Milk Movers – a fleet of eight tractors and seven tridem trailers based just south of Red Deer, Alta. “There are 15 [milk] haulers in Alberta. We are Number 4 for size.”

They’re typical of the small businesses that serve this sector.

Milk trailers can find a second life in other service on a farm.

Family connections

There are 12,000 dairy farms in the country, and their cows all need to be milked twice a day, feeding tanks that hold up to 2.5 days of production. This means each dairy farm is visited by its milk carrier 182 times a year.

“We have very good relationships with our farms. Bigger farms here are still family-owned,” Wagers adds.

The friendly relationships will often lead to other dealings, such as farmers buying milk haulers’ used tank trailers for chemical spreading, adds Colin Kerr, president of Alberta’s milk haulers association. “Most of us get calls regularly from the farming community, looking to see if there’s any trailers available.”

The work is also more complex than backing up to the level, asphalted dock in an industrial park.

Simon Madore, owner of the two-truck SM Translait – and also the mayor of Coaticook, Que., a community known for its ice cream – refers to challenges such as farm laneways that can be steep, bumpy, or unplowed. Rural and gravel roads are often the last to be de-iced, and pick-up points can be remote.

Wager refers to one driver that had to call for a winch because the truck simply couldn’t make the hill on the return trip. Situations like that are not unique to Alberta.

“If it’s a Sunday and there’s icing rain, we put the chains on the tires and we just go. We don’t have a choice; cows don’t stop production,” Madore says. He knows the realities of the business well. He remembers the days when his dad collected milk jugs by hand, delivering them to homes in the family’s old six-wheeler Ford.

Driving is just one of the challenges. Milk haulers do much more than steer the wheel. Each day and for each farm’s production, drivers need to grade the milk’s appearance, tasting, smelling and verifying temperatures to make sure everything is acceptable before loading.

“Once it’s in our truck, we become responsible for the cargo,” Madore explains.

Used to move food-grade cargo, today’s 35,000-liter trailers also need to be thoroughly washed inside and out using heated water and chemicals after every delivery. Think of it as a giant dishwasher with a circulating system.

The trailer are insulated rather than heated or refrigerated, and temperatures can’t vary by more than 2 Celsius in 24 hours.

That can be a challenge with the warm winds of Chinooks that sometimes blow through Alberta. “We can deal with 40 degree temperature changes from where we leave in the morning to where we deliver to,” Wagers says, adding that 100 km/h winds can also push a tanker full of milk that already has fluids moving in another direction in the tank.

He occasionally turns to a tracking system to monitor driver safety when Mother Nature strikes. “When the truck is at 30 km/h, you know the roads are really bad,” he notes.

“Even if we find a Class 1/A driver, he’s not allowed to collect milk until he passed the course,” says Simon Madore.

Recruitment challenges

The distances traveled will vary from one milk hauler to the next, depending at what dairy plant the drivers need to serve. And it can sometimes be a challenge against the backdrop of hours of service.

Wagers says his trucks sometimes have to travel four hours in one direction before returning, pushing them ever closer to the maximum 13 hours on duty. Dairies, meanwhile, have been known to ask trucks to complete deliveries 12 hours after cows are milked, forcing drivers to go off-duty and then return on duty for a late-evening shipment.

The extra responsibilities and mandatory agri-food technology training make it even harder for milk haulers to recruit drivers. “Even if we find a Class 1/A driver, he’s not allowed to collect milk until he passed the course,” Madore says, noting that there can be several months between the moment when a recruit applies and when the training is available.

On the plus side, most of the drivers know they’re going to be home every night, maybe to share a bowl of ice cream with his kids.

Milk is hauled in well-insulated tankers, ensuring temperatures don’t shift more than 2 Celsius in 24 hours. (Tremcar photo)

Spec’ing a milk tanker

Stainless steel is the key material for milk. “Everything has to be AAA approved,” says Colin Kerr, president of Alberta’s Milk Haulers Association.

Welds need to be nice and smooth so nothing will remain in crevasses after a good cleaning. “If there’s any kind of porous surface at all, the milk will stick to it and bacteria will start growing,” Kerr warns.

Insulation material thickness is typically in the four-inch range. Styrofoam or fiberglass can be used, though each has merits and weaknesses, Kerr says. Styrofoam can melt when exposed to overheated cleaning fluid (at more than 82 Celsius). Fiberglass tends to collect water and road debris if the shielding is not perfectly sealed, adding to overall weights and reducing payload capacities over time.

Compartments reduce the milk movement. Yet, each time you add one, you lose 600 to 700 liters of potential payload, Kerr says. Single-barrel tanks can be considered when a single pick-up is enough to fill one.

Drum brakes seem to withstand the dust and dirt of rural roads better than discs, according to Kerr. But if you do mainly highway or city driving, discs last longer, don’t come out of adjustment, and offer safer braking.

Sliding suspensions to enhance weight distribution have not been successful in milk hauling, he adds. The moving product can cause premature component wear, and they can be difficult to slide when caked with mud.

  • An earlier version of this article was updated to reflect a response from Coke.

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