MORE than the backs of their hands on the wheel, road train drivers know Australia like few others; tracing the contours of the countryside to the hum of the bitumen, the rhythm of the corrugations on dirt roads, the syncopated interruptions of potholes and stock grids.
They know the changing colours of landscape, the to-and-froing of seasonal produce, the changing chorus of birds and insects across country.
It’s coming into summer – cotton season is over, sugar season continues, pineapples will be back, the grain harvest looms large.
What those road train drivers know across country, regions and state borders, has now been magnified to create a comprehensive, high-resolution transport map of more than 30 commodities across the continent.
The first time such an ambitious logistics project has been undertaken in Australia – and possibly the world. Particularly ambitious when you consider that commodities in Australia have some of the longest journeys across continent in the world, often over 3000km.
From little things big things grow
What started as a project to map all the combinations of journeys taking cattle from farm to abattoir to port to market, has been expanded and reported as part of the White Paper on Agricultural Competitiveness.
Called TraNSIT, the project has mapped the transport of 98 per cent of Australia’s agricultural volume, commodities including: beef, sheep/goats, dairy, pigs, poultry, grains, cotton, rice, sugar, buffalo, stockfeed and horticulture.
The expanded project, in fact, includes data on 223,000 enterprises, including 216,000 farms, 350 processors, 500 sales yards or feed lots, 530 storage facilities and 3,600 supermarkets.
If the mind boggles at the thought of the permutations and combinations of journeys on the logistics routes, that’s 332,000 different origin-to-destination pathways, plus another 150,000 for forestry.
The report quantifies on a national scale for the first time what any farmer would tell you; that transport costs consume a significant amount of sales - $5.8billion or 9.8 per cent of the total farm gross value of production in 2015/16.
A major advantage of the research has been using state-of-the-art logistics modelling to link industry data sets and geographically map out individual supply chain movements across the industry. The result is providing Australian farmers, processors, transport providers and levels of government with the best chance of making evidence-based infrastructure decisions.
"Australia now has an understanding of the country’s agricultural freight routes right across Australia’s supply chain,” says Dr Andrew Higgins, CSIRO Principal Research Scientist and lead author of the TraNSIT report.
"What does it look like for each commodity, where are the pinch points, where are the opportunities, where are the problem areas. People had ideas on the ground – this provides real numbers to the whole system.”
The project will be used to inform Australia’s future transport infrastructure investment decisions across the agriculture sector.
Initial work by TraNSIT on cattle transport has been used to inform investment under the $100 million Beef Roads Program. The first project was approved in early November by the Australian Government to seal 16.9 kilometres of the Clermont to Alpha Road in Queensland.
Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester said the $8.017 million works would significantly improve road safety, travel reliability and access for oversize vehicles while reducing freight and maintenance costs.
"This investment will ensure this key freight route will stand up to Queensland's weather and reduce road closures, and eliminate vehicle weight restrictions.”
Cooperation across commodities
Key to the expanded TraNSIT project has been something apparently much simpler and more human, the cooperation and input of the agricultural, horticultural and transport sectors.
"We had about 80 agencies and industry organisations. That was the big hurdle – those diverse data sets which in some cases had never been made available. The biggest transport data set ever put together for agriculture. Whole-of-industry, whole-of-country – down to individual vehicle movements, superfine detail,” says Higgins.
And, as you might imagine, there is enormous variation across commodities.
As the report points out, for cattle and other live animal movements, the cost per head will be substantially less than the cost per tonne of harvested crop and processed meat.
Cost per tonne of transporting cotton is high compared to other commodities due to the low bulk density.
In the dairy industry, Victoria has over 60% of Australia’s milk production so large volumes of milk are transported between states to meet domestic demand. That’s unlike poultry where production is closer to the major cities and production volumes in each state is more aligned to consumption.
Rice is mostly grown in southern NSW but needs to be transported to retail outlets across Australia - long average distances of transport and high costs per tonne. Horticulture also has high transport costs per tonne because of very long distances to major markets.
Australian grain production in 2016/17 was 63 million tonnes worth $17.2 billion at the farm gate, and contributing $13.9 billion in export earnings to the Australian economy.
Ms Fiona McCredie, National Policy Manager at Grain Growers Limited, says TraNSIT provides an essential tool for the industry to understand the rail and road costs and to how these can be reduced, particularly problems in getting grain off the farm to the local receive site and at the end of the road in getting transport access into port facilities.
"GrainGrowers’ goal is a more efficient grains supply chain and lower freight costs to farmers. So we need to have robust and comprehensive data in order to influence policy and investment decisions and that’s what CSIRO’s TraNSIT model can provide,” McCredie says.
"There are many first and last mile freight issues in grains; TraNSIT will help us identify ways to improve efficiencies to get grain from farm to port or to domestic customers.”
Ms Deb Kerr, General Manager Policy at Australian Pork, says she sees the TraNSIT model being particularly useful to the pork industry at times of emergency when quick and effective transport solutions need to be found.
In the event of a fire, flood an EAD (emergency animal disease), or other emergency, the transport options may be constrained.
Kerr says having this tool with the detailed information it can provide will allow producers to make quicker decisions, particularly in relation to the cost of the different options.
"Producers are looking forward to a farmer-friendly version of TraNSIT model being made available,” she says.
That’s a lot of information
CSIRO’s Stephen McFallan worked on transforming the data into useable visual maps and said what has been developed is in many ways a simple means of analysing a lot of data to produce a visual interpretation of the complex logistical challenges in getting produce to market in such a big country.
"Computationally, we have got a lot of origins and destinations and you have got to work out how to get from A to B with minimum costs and consider driver behaviours, with each industry there are six solutions.
"We had 332,000 pairs, over two million solutions to be found – half a terabyte of data.
"The most satisfying maps were the differential maps showing if you spend money how that changes traffic or freight flows as a result of investment. That’s fairly instructive, where the traffic may change as a result of a given quantum of investment.
"The most challenging aspect was what sort of truck is moving along my road and what is it carrying. To try and extract that data you have to get down to each individual route to understand how many trucks are moving along that road, you have to know if it’s carrying mixed commodities or oranges, and which direction it’s going – getting down to each individual piece of information.”
Down the road
TraNSIT is now being applied overseas, particularly in Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam to address supply chain inefficiencies and cross-border bottlenecks.
In Australia, the next step is developing an internet application which protects commercial-in-confidence data but allows governments access to inform infrastructure development, and farmers, commodity managers, logistics personnel, truckers and train drivers to punch in their destination and have the most cost-effective and efficient journey to market, port or storage.
That is going to be especially useful not only in informing future infrastructure investment but also when natural events interrupt supply chains.
"Planned future enhancement of TraNSIT seeks to maximise agricultural supply chains by increasing their resilience to flood and other adverse weather events to deliver greater farm gate returns for producers,” says Higgins.
Read more on TraNSIT, including a link to the final report.