Hopkins Transport: The chicken expert

Sometimes the numbers just speak for themselves: Since 2008, Hopkins Transport has transported over a billion day-old chickens and fertilised eggs without loss.  To achieve this remarkable record, Steve Hopkins and his brother Geoff have developed a transport business with cutting edge technology that moves around five million chicks and eggs across the eastern states and South Australia – and that’s just an average week.

Following pick up from the hatcheries, there is a maximum of 30 hours to get to the destination for layer (egg-producing) birds and a tighter deadline of 24 hours for broiler (meat) chickens before their condition begins to deteriorate. “If we have to pay for dead birds then information is king,” says Geoff, who started his career as a hairdresser and then worked with Mack Trucks at Chipping Norton in 1981 before teaming with his brother in 1997 to form Hopkins Transport Australia.

Timing off-loading windows down to the minute is one of the results of Hopkins adopting a high tech approach to handling their sensitive cargo. At the centre is a software system called ReeferTrak, which is an American program written to monitor and track rail transport and refrigerated shipping containers.  

Hopkins Transport Australia has adapted it to control the temperature and air quality in all of its trailers remotely via desktop. Another feature of ReeferTrak is that it monitors voltages and can be used to predict alternator problems before they occur. Steve Hopkins, whose career previous to transport was in banking and IT, has had ReeferTrak integrated with a GPS system fitted to the entire fleet, which allows for monitoring it in real time – including fatigue management and compliance. Data loggers within the cab are also integrated into the system.

Vehicle location is important but what is absolutely crucial when transporting day-old chicks or fertilised eggs is the temperature and airflow in the trailers and bodies. 

Each chick generates one Btu (British Thermal Unit which is equivalent to 1055 joules) of heat, which means that the trailer capacities are beyond the cooling capabilities of available refrigeration and must operate in conjunction with a complex air flow system in order to maintain an optimum internal environment.

Should extreme ambient temperatures begin to affect loads during delivery, internal temperatures and air flows within the trailer can be manipulated without stopping the vehicle to ensure the quality of the load is maintained. Parameters are in place for notification of issues to managers’ mobile phones on a 24-hour basis.

The GPS system will also show if the truck is stopped in traffic and adjustments can be made to the internal environment due to the reduced air flow past the trailer. In the summer months, Hopkins has even diverted drivers to change their routes to meet up with a storm or cold front to benefit from the lower ambient temperatures.

Hopkins commissioned their first B-double in 2006 and has since perfected the requirements for their unusual operation. The later model trailers are custom-manufactured by Southern Cross and feature a folding tailgate loader for the A-trailer that has been modified to suit after being imported from Europe – making the unloading process much quicker. The maximum capacity of 160,000 chicks makes these B-double trucks unique in the world.

Hopkins Transport Australia has also developed the sophisticated air flow system for its trailers (and rigids), which precisely controls the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to ensure the health of the live cargo. The precise details of the system are a valuable propriety asset for the company and are closely guarded.

There are separate large airflow fans for the supply and discharge of fresh air which are operated by one of two diesel generators mounted slung under each of the trailers. The use of two generators ensures confidence as there will always be a backup unit available in the rare event that a problem arises with one.

This backup capacity is typical of how Hopkins conduct their business. “If a fan fails there is only  15 minutes before the chicks start choking so it’s always a good idea to have a Plan B, but we even have plan’s A through to E,” Geoff Hopkins said.

Hopkins delivers to around 500 farms and it takes an experienced team around one hour to unload 60,000 chicks, but due to the layout of some properties this can take up to five hours – with the environment within the trailer needing to be maintained even with the doors open.

Like many in the poultry industry, the Hopkins brothers see diseases such as avian flu and Newcastle disease as a major industry threat and are concerned that imports will further increase the existing risks. Consequently, they take cleaning and bio-security so seriously that each trailer receives 15 hours of meticulous cleaning attention every week. The agricultural authorities generally look at the transport industry first whenever there is an outbreak, so Steve and Geoff see the cleaning schedule as vital.

Another reason for the scrupulous cleaning regime is that the chicks give off a very fine down which in certain circumstances sets into a hard mass and can affect the numerous electronic sensors within the trailer bodies and even build up on fan blades causing problems.

Eggs and chicks require different internal configurations of the trailers and there are also variations in the hatching systems used by some hatcheries that have to be accommodated by using racking dedicated to each type. Hopkins has developed its own system to cater to all systems and maximise the efficiency of its fleet.

Hopkins currently operates an eclectic fleet of 16 trucks and 25 trailers, plus three sub-contractors. Even when fully loaded, the B-doubles only just top 40 tonnes, so massive horsepower isn’t required, but perfect reliability and fuel efficiency are. There are several Internationals and T408 Kenworths in the fleet, as well as a couple of DAF CFs.

Recently Hopkins has sought to purchase new trucks locally in Tamworth, adding Western Star and MAN products to the fleet as well. “Our preference is to use local dealers that have a workshop presence so that any problems can be dealt with in a timely manner,” he explains.

One factor that is standardised across the board is the use of Carrier refrigeration units on all trailers and rigid bodies. If the weather conditions require it, the trailers can be pre-heated or cooled to ensure the perfect conditions for when they are loaded with day-old chicks or eggs. 

With the trucks never under full load, 200,000 kilometres is expected from drive tyres – and ensuring that the inflation pressures are correct assists achieving that figure. Hopkins is in the process of moving the entire fleet to Michelin tyres and will take up the re-grooving option as well, but will not run recaps.

The nature of the work allows Hopkins to offer their drivers variation in either local or long distance work. The company policy is that motel accommodation is available for drivers on long hauls even though the trucks are equipped with adequate sleepers. A changeover system for drivers is also in place, which benefits the drivers and ensures that the trucks and their precious loads continue on to their destinations.

“Our strength is our service and consistency,” Geoff says, pointing out that the chicken industry continues to grow in Australia with annual per capita consumption of chicken meat now at 45 kilograms. “By adapting new technology, Hopkins Transport will continue to help all that getting food to the nation’s tables.”

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