Sweet alfalfa hay from Southern Saskatchewan is fattening the cows in the Beef Capital of the World, Hereford, Texas.
We were loaded in the farmer’s field after spending the night parked among his giant stainless steel grain silos. The farm, 22,000 acres, is owned by a Hutterite colony. When the sun rose, light bathed the pristine fields, golden from a winter’s hibernation. Spotless, as far as the eye could see, not one errant white plastic bag flapping in the wind stuck against the barbed wire posts. It was a delight in design and organization, the silos in a row, the big trucks in a row, the trailers in a row. Beautiful. It appealed to MacGyver’s artistic sensibility.
Jake, married 36 years, a father of six, four of whom have provided his 14 grandchildren, the final two children will be married off this year, was affable and helpful. In addition to the hay, grain and cattle, there is a government inspected scale, $15 per load “no exceptions”, payment on the honor system, a cash box next to the office.
The loading procedure for the hay starts with an empty weight ticket from the scale. Inbound we were 35,200 pounds, we needed about 1,500 pounds for fuel. Our gross vehicle weight is 80,000 pounds and we can carry a maximum of 12,000 on the front, steer, tires and 34,000 pounds on the drive and trailer axles. Our maximum payload is 44,000 pounds.
From the scale we followed Jake to the hay barn. He has filled and emptied the giant barn, the size of a minor league hockey rink, twice, in the last few months sending the hay to the U.S.
The bales are designed for a 53 foot trailer, which holds 13 hay wafers, each containing three bales. The hay wafers are the dimensions of the trailer opening. The farmer punches the hay wafer with his front-end loader, which has several spears and places the first wafer into the back of trailer, each subsequent wafer pushes the hay further inside until the trailer is full.
We return to the scale. A second driver, we were loaded with, another Landstar truck, scaled heavy, one bale was removed for weight and he was off, done in a few minutes. Not us. Because, well, we’re Canadian, and Canadian from another generation, meaning we are not keen on running afoul of the law, which means we want to be sure that we are within the legal weight limits and not overweight on any of the axles. A ticket is just not worth it for a load of hay, especially a load that is not paying very much.
Jake weighed each axle, then the complete unit for the gross weight. Leaving 1,500 pounds for fuel, we were overweight. Two bales were removed. We scaled again, all axles and total weight. Still over. A third bale was removed. We scaled again. This time we were legal weight with room for fuel, but the drive axles were too heavy. We adjusted the load weight by sliding the trailer tandems forward, two holes, about a foot, 250 pounds of weight per hole, and the trailer balanced.
Final gross weight 78,360 pounds. Steer axle 10,920, drive axles 33,680 and trailer axle 33,760. And to be additionally cautious we never filled past 2/3rds of a tank.
The next step was customs clearance. We emailed the shipper’s bill of lading — this is where the 4G WiFi card comes in — to the agent on the load. The agent emailed us an ACE Manifest, the Exit Pass to leave Canada and re-enter the United States.
We emailed both the ACE Manifest and the Bill of Lading to the Customs broker in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
What did truckers do before technology? We wouldn’t have survived five miles before technology. Google Maps, Google Earth, Email, CellPhone, GPS. Before technology it was a lot easier to cross the border. Drivers traveled down the road to the nearest truck stop — and many still do — the Husky in Regina or the Co-Op in Weyburn and sent and waited for faxes, $1 a page now.
Paperwork emailed we started for Portal, North Dakota.
Our plan was to drop the load 24 hours later, by 4PM Central Time, but we spent longer clearing out of Canada than anticipated and missed the last unload by a couple of hours leaving us with a problem. MacGyver had booked three back-to-back loads. We needed to be unloaded Thursday morning ASAP in order to pick up the next load AND to deliver that load in time Friday morning to pick up the final load Friday afternoon — our money load, which delivered Easter Monday in Calgary, Alberta. The hay, and then the potatoes out of Dalhart, Texas didn’t pay much more than fuel and our survival expenses, but all three loads together, including about 1,000 miles of deadhead, left us with $1.51 a mile, ALL miles, and profit for a week’s business.
We called the delivery.
“How can I assure that I will be unloaded first in the morning,” I asked the pleasant woman who answered the phone.
She told me we could park on the ramp to the scale in the hay yard, anyone who arrives after will be behind us. That’s what we did. We stopped in Amarillo for showers at the TA, a nice dinner of Safeway Signature Steakhouse Chili, topped with my own additions, cheddar cheese, fresh scallions, crisp and refreshing yellow grape tomatoes with a side of baby cucumbers and a Dad’s oatmeal and raisin cookie for dessert.
We pulled into the hay yard about 9:30 Eastern time, positioning ourselves on the ramp to the scale and settled in for a night of non-moving sleep among the hundreds of stacked hay bales. There was enough breeze that the ammonia odor from the CAFO down the road — the Contained Area Feeding Operation, the cow fattening plant — quickly dispersed.
In the morning the sun rose over the yard, we were weighed first and pulled up to the dock. I had an OhMyGosh moment when the yard supervisor inspected the hay with a temperature probe.
“The farmer said it was sweet alfalfa and that you’d like it,” I told him.
“That’s what they all say,” he said and shoved the probe into the back bale. Glancing at his meter, he turned to the forklift driver and said “go ahead, it’s good.”
It’s a fact of life for drivers carrying produce, which we avoid, because if a consignee refuses a load, the driver has to find a way to dispose of it. What am I going to do with 43,000 pounds of hay?
“We had one driver show up, the trailer was steaming, I didn’t need to check the temperature,” he told me. “I told him I didn’t want the shit and to take it away.”
One more unpaid job for the trucker, quality control. Or we pay the price.