The North Island stock transport industry is in crisis, according to truckies, with few companies making a profit in recent years and many drivers forced to work long hours in overloaded trucks.
And police say they are seeing grim consequences – with a laden stock truck rolling at least once a month, spilling injured animals on to the road.
Allegations are also being made of bribes to some stock agents to give an operator favourable treatment over others. According to research by Waikato University for the Road Transport Forum, each truck on the road in 2010 was running at a loss of $8248 a year.
Operators say that loss can only have grown since.
They say the pressure on their finances has brought overloading, leading to animal welfare concerns and increased likelihood of accidents, mechanically unsound trucks on the road, speeding, long hours and logbook falsifications.
These problems have been brought to a head this year by exceptional summer-autumn grass growth.
Animals are fatter but operators and drivers are under pressure to squeeze them on to trucks in the same numbers as last year.
The operators blame what they say is an unfair payment system and rates set by the meat companies that have not changed in four years.
Under the system, transport companies are paid for carting stock according to the number of animals carted and the distance travelled from pick-up to destination. The payment does not account for the cost of getting to the pick-up point, usually a farm or saleyards.
Inspector Gwynne Pennell, head of the police's commercial vehicle investigation unit, described truck rollover accidents as heartbreaking. "These situations, where you've got prime cattle beasts being put down on the side of the road, bleeding, limping, maimed, it's an absolute heartbreak," she said.
And she was sympathetic to the drivers. "They are driving on unforgiving roads; there's no shoulders, just crumbling sides that give way. At the same time, the stock move around and the weight distribution changes.
"It takes only a slight miscalculation to end up with a pretty ugly situation."
She said her staff were hearing disturbing stories from drivers. "They are working 70 hours a week for a minimal wage: $16-$17-$18 an hour. So when they start fudging that logbook it's not because they're creaming the money off they're struggling to get by." Some companies gave more work to drivers who stretched the rules. Overweight trucks were avoidable, Ms Pennell said, because the agents knew the weights.
"But they don't want to do part-loads; they want them all on the one truck."
She said farmers, meat companies and agents all had to bear responsibility.
"Everybody's making money except the transport firm." She agreed the payment structure should be weight based.
Farmers Transport Putaruru branch manager Darrin O'Connor said that while meat companies had not changed their payment rates to reflect inflation, some carriers were resorting to "crazy" measures to make up for their weak cashflows.
Mr O'Connor said most companies were "playing the game" with a straight bat, but there were some cowboys in the industry creating problems.
He said competition between carriers in the North Island was flaring up, forcing some companies to operate at a loss just to secure jobs.
He said it had been a tough year financially for the industry as the good grass growth meant farmers were holding on to their stock for longer.
One company is proposing a change, initially for non-meat company cartage, based on the number, weight and size of the animals carried and the full distance travelled. The idea is supported by other operators but meat companies are resisting its extension to their cartage.
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