In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, truck driver Adam Wilmes says he felt like a bit of a superhero.
“We were doing our part keeping the world alive,” Wilmes says. “We were keeping the pork coming to the plants, we were keeping grocery stores stocked, we were keeping the supply chain moving.”
At any given time, there are approximately one million pigs on the road moving to their next farm and to market, says Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board.
“The work truck drivers have been doing during COVID-19 is critical and should be applauded, as we work together to feed consumers,” Even says.
A Roller Coaster Ride You Don’t Want to Stay On
From March to the first of May, Wilmes says his trucking business, Wilmes Livestock LLC located in Gower, Mo., was moving record numbers. Producers were being proactive and getting as many hogs to the packing plants as possible, he says.
“If we were available to take a load, they put it on us,” Wilmes adds. “We tried to move as many as we could each load.”
Fortunately, the government stepped up and provided support to truckers on May 14. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published a final rule updating hours of service (HOS) rules to increase safety on America’s roadways by updating existing regulations for truck drivers.
“America’s truckers are doing a heroic job keeping our supply chains open during this unprecedented time and these rules will provide them greater flexibility to keep America moving,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao in a U.S. Department of Transportation release.
The government’s support of truck drivers provided needed assistance for not only the trucking industry, but also agriculture and the medical industry.
But the feeling of being superheroes stopped abruptly when packing plants began shutting down due to COVID-19 and worker absenteeism. Business basically stopped overnight.
“We went from being overbooked on loads to running at about 30% capacity,” Wilmes says. “We had one week where we only had 11 loads scheduled for all 10 of my trucks. We generally run about 60 loads a week.”
But the next week, they were back up to an 80% schedule and then up again to 100% the week after as plants reopened and the supply chain started moving again.
Challenges with Heavier Weight Hogs
Now that Wilmes’ business is back to normal from a schedule standpoint, he’s facing new challenges with heavier market hogs.
“The hogs are considerably bigger now,” he says. “Generally, we target an average weight of 280 to 295 pounds, but now the average is closer to 320-340 pounds. They are considerably more stubborn, and the mortality rate is higher because they can’t handle stress as well at that weight.”
It’s also getting warmer. This combination has caused truck drivers to adjust their schedules and allow more time to move hogs.
“Running into hot weather and big loads will play a huge factor in what we can do,” Wilmes says. “We generally run a third of a percent mortality rate. I predict we’ll be over 1%, if not 2%, this summer because of this.”
Although producers understand the increase in mortality, Wilmes is disappointed because the livestock transportation industry has worked hard to decrease mortality rates by improving trailers and animal handling methods. That’s another reason why good relationships between producers and truckers is important.
“Not every load of hogs is going to move the same and react the same,” he adds. “The more you read your load, the easier it makes it on you when you go try to move those hogs.”
Changes in Plant Procedures
Truck drivers’ interaction with employees at the plant has been minimized in an effort to increase biosecurity.
Wilmes says this has been tough as one of the things he and his employees enjoy about their job is the positive interaction they get to have with employees at the plant.
“We are there to transport and unload, we now have minimal interaction with employees,” he says. “Drivers must stay in their truck it’s time to unload.”
But he admits it has other effects, too. People who have helped make his job so rewarding and meaningful have been cut out of his everyday routine.
“I am a social person. I enjoy the interaction. One of the biggest things I enjoyed about the job was the relationship that I've had with the farmers, the growers, the producers,” Wilmes says.
Everyone is taking something away from COVID-19 and Wilmes says he’s learned some important lessons, too.
“I definitely don’t take loads for granted anymore,” Wilmes says. “I’ve tried to tell my drivers as much as possible, whether they’ve had a bad day or something isn’t perfect for that minute, that they need to realize the opportunity might not be available tomorrow.”
He says opportunity is the operative word through all of this.
“If you don’t capitalize on the opportunity today, it may not be there in the future. That’s been helpful for me as a business owner to get the guys who were a little stale in that department before, to realize they can’t take it for granted,” Wilmes says.
Whether we want to believe it or not, we can’t control everything around us, he adds.
“When we started, we were 10-foot-tall and bulletproof because we were essential in so many facets that they weren't going to be able to shut us down or keep us from making money,” Wilmes says. “We learned real fast that can change.”
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