Dense alluvial soils washed from volcanic mesa in the surrounds of Mount Warning have long made it a favorable agricultural region, with its sub-tropical climate well suited to growing crops.
In the picturesque area outlined by the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence rivers in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, the state’s sugarcane belt can be found.
There are some 500 independent sugarcane farmers in an area also home to banana plantations, beef farms, macadamia orchards, and fields of other fruit and vegetable crops.
In recent years, sugarcane fields in the western part of the Richmond Valley have been expanding as broadacre farmers have transitioned into an industry that has, for over 150 years, been an economic mainstay in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. Sunshine Sugar, the banner with which the NSW Sugar Milling Co-operative and the Australian family-owned business, Manildra Group, sits under, operates mills in one each of the three main sugarcane-growing regions of the Northern Rivers.
These are triangulated between sites — moving down the coastline — at Condong, Broadwater and Harwood. The Harwood Mill is the longest continuously running sugar mill in Australia, having commenced operations in 1874. Harvest typically commences in early June and lasts until December. In a good year, 2018 for example, the Broadwater Mill will crush some 700,000 tonnes of locally grown cane.
At the start of each harvest a dedicated fleet of 31 trucks, embossed in the SCT insignia, roars to life. Since 2005, SCT Logistics has serviced the Sunshine Sugar account, ferrying its commercial vehicles between farm sites and the nearby mills. The trucks work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A pick-up or delivery might only entail trips of a few kilometres, at the most a 150 km round trip, but the work is relentless.
Farmers, tip harvested sugarcane into bins parked on cane pads or marshalling areas amongst the cane fields. The bins, which can carry up to 28-tonnes at a time, are retrieved by the trucks and delivered to the mill.
A rear door on the bin opens, from which its contents are tipped from a purpose-built trailer into a hopper at the mill for processing. The emptied bin is then taken back to the farm.
Driving is not dissimilar to shuttle work between distribution centres, but the payload requirement and apparatus of discharging it makes it a very different and intricate application, unique to not only this part of the world, but to the industry.
Up until 2019, SCT Logistics had been using Kenworths for the operation.
That all changed two years ago when it introduced 16 new Euro 6 Mercedes-Benz Actros 2646LS trucks as part of a comprehensive fleet replacement program involving seven purpose-built quad axle skel trailers — the first of its kind approved under Performance-Based Standards (PBS). The operation is perhaps even more payload sensitive given the sugarcane market varies season to season. Maximising every dollar is crucial as the volume of next year’s crop is always unknown.
Therefore, any improvements to payload capacity on each vehicle is regarded as significant. SCT Logistics National Fleet Manager Michael Sommers says payload advantages were a driving force behind the decision to update the fleet.
“We worked out that we could get a better payload with the cabover Mercedes-Benz Actros, even though it is a heavier truck,” he says. “But with the axle and the wheel configuration, it actually gave us a better load profile. So, in the end we’ve managed to have a heavier prime mover but get an extra half-tonne payload.”
With an ageing Kenworth fleet needing to be replaced, SCT Logistics, who already had an existing alliance with Daimler Truck across other areas of its business, opted to try something new.
Introducing a quad-axle trailer on the Mercedes-Benz Actros allowed SCT Logistics to increase its load capacity to 50.5-tonnes across each unit, with 27 tonnes assigned to the trailer, all the while maintaining a total vehicle length of under 19 metres.
It’s not viable, however, to go any longer, according to Michael, when taking into consideration the singularity of the combination and bins. It would throw out axle weights.
“Now we get that extra weight on the steer axle and the weight is distributed correctly,” he says. “We worked closely with Mercedes-Benz Trucks and MaxiTRANS to come up with the best payload-to-weight ratio and that’s where we ended up.”
The quad-axle trailing equipment is technically an over-axle tipping skel trailer. It has been sanctioned to 4.6-metres overall height. At the mill, driver prowess in the smooth-reversing Actros 2646LS dock the trailers at the cane tip, before tipping the trailer onto its back wheels and axle.
A trolley on the top of the trailer slides down to the ground. It features a hook that goes over a latch on the trailer.
It’s then chain-dragged all the way back up the trailer. Once it ascends to about the halfway mark, the trailer can be lowered whereupon the trolley is dragged to the front and locked in. An adjustable bin lock system was designed to enable adjustments of the bin when it’s suspended to correct axle weights as required.
This saves time so that the bin doesn’t need to be lowered back down onto the ground.
The application was not possible with tri-axle trailers. In the past, if a bin was not loaded properly on the pad, the load might move while it was being raised, triggering the onboard weigh system which would confirm that the axle weights had been exceeded.
The bin would need to be returned and the load adjusted so that it could be picked up again within a legal load distribution. The new system is an exciting development as far as the mechanism goes for handling the materials safely and efficiently, according to Michael.
“We’ve found with the quads that we can move the bin and reduce the axle weights while the bin is still on the trailer,” he says. “If it’s legal, the driver doesn’t need to wait around any longer. MaxiTRANS went through the process with us of creating a design that we wanted so that the best axle-to-weight ratio was achieved.”
Another 19 quad trailers were ordered in 2021, with the plan being to have all 26 units of the Mercedes-Benz fleet paired with quads.
The first seven of these trailers went into action at the Condong sugar mill. As per 2018 figures, a total of 22,332 trips were made by SCT’s trucks to 136 different pick-up addresses for that one sugar mill.
With PBS, those trips come down to 17,966 — a reduction of 4,366 truck movements according to Michael.
“Taking over 4000 truck and trailer movements off the road is a significant productivity gain,” he says. “When you’re working in these areas where the roads are mostly country roads used by local people, we want to ensure that safety comes first. It was a no-brainer for the Local Government Area (LGA). They told us that they would do that all day, every day.”
Truck trips completed in a season across all three mills exceeds 71,200; or they did up until now. Transit routes involve passage through five LGAs and require NSW RMS permits.
Notwithstanding the occasional approval holdup, the LGAs have been supportive of the business model given the high scrutiny SCT Logistics places on its payloads and vehicle conditions.
In-season maintenance of the vehicles is conducted every 14 to 21 days, scheduled to coincide with maintenance days at the mills. SCT Logistics runs the entire transport division. The workshop cleans all equipment thoroughly in the off-season.
Splintering sugarcane spears tend to lodge in hard-to-get places and a comprehensive washdown for each mobile asset can take up to two days.
Once completed, the vehicles receive a detailed inspection.
Murwillumbah Truck Centre provides additional support when required. Trucks are usually ready to go a month prior to the new season. At this point SCT Logistics re-employs all its drivers.
For those that don’t return, new drivers are found. That requires additional training.
“When you’ve got approximately 31 trucks, each being operated by three drivers, there’s up to 100 drivers who need to participate in some sort of refresher course or training,” Michael says. “It’s vital everyone is aware of best practice. Again, this takes time.”
Service time was once measured in hours to factor in the heavy idle time of trucks operating the Power Take-Off (PTO).
Now that information is recorded in MTData, the designated fleet telematics provider, along with driver hours, fuel economy, mass declarations and any real-time metrics operations managers might need for assessment.
All trucks have an on-board weighing system and are registered in the Intelligent Access Program (IAP). In the commercial vehicle department, overseen by Michael, there are some 200 trucks and over 300 trailers.
Around 1200 people are employed, including subcontractors with their own vehicles.
“SCT is a visionary company always looking outside the box,” he says. “As a family business it’s a pleasure to work for.”
The company places an ever-increasing emphasis on improving safety and reducing its environmental impact as a business.
Upgrading the NSW sugarcane fleet to a day cab Mercedes-Benz Actros 2646LS Euro 6, fits with this objective, but also helps realise another.
By reducing operational costs, those savings can then be passed onto the customer.
The option of having a fully maintained operating lease sweetened the deal when it was obvious the Mercedes-Benz product was more cost effective to maintain over a five-year period, which is when SCT Logistics typically turns over its trucks. “In our arm of the business we’re going all in on European.
Driver airbags, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and crash detection systems are all standard on the Mercedes-Benz. The benefits when compared to the previous trucks outweighed anything,” Michael says.
“What we’ve got here is a heavier truck, but we’ve got half a tonne more payload. Daimler Truck made the whole process easier than what it could have been.”
It was near Murwillumbah, where Joshua Bray, an industry pioneer, whose farm at Kynnumboon produced some of the first sugarcane crops as early as 1869.
The area is rich with such history, even as a new era begins in the glimpse of a German engineered Euro VI 460 horsepower prime mover flashing through the blaze of tall reeds.