In It for the Long Haul

October 3, 2011 07:33 PM
In It for the Long Haul

There’s no way to know for certain, of course, but our guess is that 19th-century author Jules Verne would have loved spending some time talking to modern-day long-haul, truck driver John Patrick. 

Verne was fascinated with the transportation marvels of his day---steamships, trains, hot air balloons and more---so much so that they became a central background point in his classic novel "Around The World In 80 Days."

Patrick, of Woodbine, Md., specializes in delivering elite dairy and beef cattle from farms in the northeastern U.S. to major livestock shows throughout the country.  World Dairy Expo is one of his annual destinations. During a typical year, Patrick and his 18-wheeler log over 100,000 miles as part of the job. After 23 years in the business, he’s accumulated a wealth of experiences and insights that surely would have captivated Verne.

Cattle fortunate enough to catch a ride with Patrick travel in style.  For starters, his 50’-long, 8 ½’-wide trailer is equipped with air-ride suspension technology to minimize the bumping and jostling that can occur as the truck travels over the roadway. "In a gooseneck trailer, the cattle can really get pounded, especially on longer trips," he says. "The air-ride smooths things out. Sometimes, I think the cows back in the trailer have a better ride than I do."

The trailer is also designed so that it can easily be divided into as many as six different compartments. That allows Patrick to sort the animals he’s transporting according to size. "If I have calves on, I can put them in one compartment and the mature cows in another.  Or if I have cows of different breeds on, like Jerseys and Holsteins, I can put them in different pens.  That way, the smaller animals don’t get pushed around by the bigger ones during the trip."

A 3’-wide rubber mat, running the length of the trailer (on the side where the cattle are tied), helps cattle gain their footing while laying down or getting up during the trip. As an additional measure aimed at keeping cows comfortable, Patrick also spreads a generous helping of wood shavings on the trailer floor for bedding.

A typical Expo trip for Patrick from the East Coast states to the Alliant Energy Center in Madison takes 14-15 hours.  He usually stops three times during the 800-mile trip to check on the cattle, feed hay and provide fresh water.  Last year, the 19 animals he hauled to Expo consumed 300 lb. of hay.

Depending on the length of the trip and the cattle owners’ instructions, he might also milk the cows during one of the stops. The equipment for that chore--powered by a Honda motor and a Conde pump---is carried on the truck.  Sometimes, he’ll make arrangements to do the milking at a friends’ farm along his travel route.  At other times, he’ll do the milking at a service plaza.  "You can get some curious looks from people when they see you climbing into the trailer with a milking machine, " he says.

Many people might assume that maneuvering a rig carrying livestock (fully loaded weight of 65,000-66,000 lb) along busy, often crowded highways would be the most stressful part of the job. But Patrick says loading and unloading cattle creates the most tension for him.  A pull out, ground-level ramp running the full-width of the trailer’s back end minimizes the height of the step for cattle entering or leaving the trailer. The ramp is covered with a thick strip of outdoor carpeting so cattle don’t slip as they enter or leave the trailer. "You just never know how the cattle are going to react,"  he says. "They’re all different."

"People are trusting you with some very high-value animals.  Getting cows on and off the trailer safely probably makes me more nervous than anything."

In all of the years he’s been transporting animals to and from Expo, Patrick notes that he’s never had a major accident. "People think hauling cattle around must be pretty easy," he says. "But there are some little knacks to doing it right. For example, you have to make sure that you take it easy around stop signs. You learn to pull up and take off slowly. I’ve seen people will a full potload of cattle just floor it when they take off. That puts a lot of pressure on those cows back there in the trailer."

Holstein breeder Jim Burdette, owner of Windy Knoll View Farm in Mercersburg, Penn., says the importance of selecting a good trucker can’t be overstated.  "The cattle we put on the trailer are not only valuable show cattle, they’re outstanding  production cattle as well, " says Burdette, who has been hiring Patrick to transport his show string to Expo and other shows for the past five years.  "When you’re picking a driver, you want that person who is going to stop from time to time to check on how they’re doing, get them fed and watered and milked if they need it. "

"You also want to look at their truck and equipment to see how clean and well-maintained it is. That can tell you a lot about how they’re likely to take care of your cows. When John Patrick is the one loading your cattle, you know they’re going to get the best of care."

Patrick has a simple measure for assessing how well he does his job. "If you do it right, cattle walking off the trailer after an 800- or 1,000-mile trip will look like they’ve only traveled 50 miles," he says. "I take a lot of pride in getting the job done right."

The bottom line for Patrick is that he absolutely loves his job. "I like trucks, but I don’t think I could haul freight for a living," he says. "I grew up on a dairy farm, and I really like being around the cattle. Mostly, though, I love the people that I deal with in this job. They’re absolutely great. Many of them aren’t just customers, they’ve also become my friends. It’s a pretty good deal anyway you look at it."

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