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Multiple axles bring home the harvest


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Big Rigs  /  October 4, 2017

Southern Queensland is seeing the driest winter that many old-timers can remember.

Winter plantings of grain have failed in many cases and grain hauliers see an uncertain workflow for the next 12 months.

Drought has ravaged Queensland for the past half decade in its patchwork, unpredictable nature, ripping security out of many agricultural businesses.

And that is why grain operators like the Sleba family of Kingsthorpe, near Toowoomba, have diversified, to help get through the not-so-good times.

As they say in the bush, there are only two guarantees: the next drought is just around the corner and that the drought will break.

Dust is blowing across the hard-pack ridge at Kingsthorpe where I watch three generations of the Sleba family at in a small village of grain silos.

There is a capacity to store 30,000 tonnes of grain storage. Many of the silos hold 1000 tonnes each.

Trucks are in a queue to load, augers churn grain, the Sleba truck and dog configurations are tuned to a high degree of efficiency with PBS ratings.

Geoff Sleba tells me about this family grain operation that hauls, stores, grades, fumigates and delivers grain to destinations such as Brisbane port and mills.

There are six trucks operating out of the Kingsthorpe base, five truck and dog configurations and one prime mover used either in a B-double or in a road train set-up.

To get the best weight distribution over the axles, there is a move towards 8x4 twin-steers.

The fleet consists of three Freightliner Argosy trucks (two 6x4s, one 8x4) running with one 8x4 Volvo, and one tried and true, million kilometre Gumboot Scania still pulling its weight.

A Freightliner Coronado prime mover works on the road train lineal work where axle load distribution is not quite as critical.

"These trucks allow us to cart grain in and do the freight-out to destination work,” Geoff said.

"We also buy and sell grain to enhance the operation and value add.”

He tells me how the business started about 55 years ago when his father Rod and uncle Merv were dairying, moving into cropping.

In around 1972, they started growing lucerne hay, irrigating with treated wastewater from Toowoomba.

Local politics intervened when Toowoomba city sold a big percentage of the available water to the Acland coal mine.

"That was about 12 years ago and it made it difficult to have enough water in the really hot times when we needed to irrigate the lucerne most,” Geoff said.

"A mate of mine came to me and asked if I'd like to put up six silos to store a bit of grain, and I guess it started there.”

The grain business grew from there, mostly by word-of-mouth.

After starting storing grain - they had one truck at the beginning - the business expanded by investing in a grain grader dryer.

As the years went on, more trucks were purchased to keep up with the work.

"The business kept growing by word-of-mouth,” Geoff said.

"Being farmers ourselves helped, we understood the importance to growers to be able get rid of grain off the headers when they were harvesting so we operate 24/7.”

Today this is a full-on family operation, and talking to three generations of Slebas, there appears to be a reticence for any hierarchy.

This seems to be a family of equality.

Geoff's cousin Tony handles work around the silos, his brother Mark does the book work from the family home in Toowoomba but it seems that all book work and physical work is shared across family.

"We all work together as a family run business,” Geoff said in a few words, articulating the depth in which the family works together.

With the diversified nature of the business, and the flexibility brought about by storage, the trucks roll all year with peak periods.

In October and November, winter crops are harvested, mostly chickpeas, barley and wheat.

From January to April, the summer planting of sorghum comes online and from April to June, soybeans keep the trucks busy.

We watch the Argosy twin-steer and dog circle the silos under the young hands of Andrew Sleba. Clouds of dust lift as the auto-fan engages. Even though Andrew is crawling along, the fan switches on regularly. I look at Geoff.

"Yeah, the fan does come on a bit too much, have to get it seen to. But when we are pulling full load, I get the boys to switch the fan on all the time, it might cost a little extra in fuel but I like the working temperature to hold around 95 degrees.”

The trucks run up to 1200km legs into the grain growing areas of New South Wales as well as servicing the home territory of the Darling Downs and out to the Queensland town of Dirranbandi.

The fleet

With a predominance of Freightliner trucks in the fleet, the question is why?

"We found that the advice they (Freightliner dealers) were giving was sound so we gave it a go. We did change to a Volvo from the comfort point of view to try something different, but there's nothing wrong with the Freightliners, they do the job.”

The older Freightliners run the 14 litre Series 60 Detroit diesels and the three newer trucks have the 15 litre DD15 "which we are really happy with”.

Two of the DD15 engines are between 650,000 to 700,000km on the clock, the latest the 8x4 Argosy is still less than 12 months old and has done about 120,000km.

This latter truck is pulling a six axle dog, that's a lot of axles in the PBS combination.

"When PBS was first flagged I had an interest in it. I learned to drive with a truck and dog, and we have maintained the flexibility of truck and dog combinations.”

Geoff said this flexibility means the trucks can be jack-knifed over hoppers on farms to tip bulk fertiliser and they just work well in this operation.

"When PBS came in we realised, with five axle dogs we could carry more weight on the same roads we were travelling, so this made the trucks more efficient.”

With five axle dogs running, Geoff said he looked further into PBS and realised there was a possibility of a six axle dog.

This configuration allowed a 49 tonne payload under HVNL into Brisbane.

The process to gain PBS approval begins in conjunction with the bodybuilder and the truck dealership.

Ideas are put on paper and assessed by an engineer, the design is then drawn up to fit PBS requirements.

Length limits and axle spacings are calculated and once the design receives the engineer's approval, the build commences. On completion, the config- uration is put to NHVR to acquire access permits.

"The NHVR has got some good systems in place that make it easy to work,” Geoff said.

While disc brakes are not a requirement for PBS and they are a little heavier and more expensive to maintain than drum brakes, they are used throughout the Sleba fleet.

With these highly efficient units, the Sleba family operation delivers the grain to be made into the nation's daily bread.


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