Mul­ti­ple axles bring home the har­vest

A three gen­er­a­tion op­er­a­tion

Big Rigs - - OPERATOR PROFILE - Bruce Honey­will bruce.honey­will@bi­grigs.com.au

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 8 x 4 twin-steers.

The fleet con­sists of three Freight­liner Argosy trucks (two 6 x 4s, one 8 x 4) run­ning with one 8 x 4 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.

❝ We know the im­por­tance to grow­ers to be able get rid of grain off the head­ers 24/7...

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 8 x 4 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 con­fig­u­ra­tion 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.

❝With five axle dogs work­ing in the Sleba op­er­a­tion, Ge­off re­alised there was a pos­si­bil­ity of a six axle dog...

PHO­TOS: BRUCE HONEY­WILL

GRAIN TAIN: Kingsthorpe on the Dar­ling Downs, home base for the Sleba op­er­a­tion, from hay pro­duc­tion to ma­jor grain dis­tri­bu­tion.

De­liv­er­ing grain around the clock from Kingsthorpe stor­age.

The six axle PBS dog: mul­ti­ple axles for in­creased pay­load.

PHOTO: BRUCE HONEY­WILL

ALL IN THE FAM­ILY: Three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily op­er­a­tion: Rod, Ge­off, Tony and Merv Sleba with Ge­off’s son Andrew and Tony’s son Danny in front.

PHO­TOS: CON­TRIB­UTED

BIG HAUL: The Freight­liner Argosy 8x4 body and six axle dog gives a pay­load of a tad un­der 50 tonnes.

The Freight­liner Argosy twin-steer.

Ge­off Sleba saw the ef­fi­ciency in PBS for grain trans­port.

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