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Mission impossible (Oct 2021)

Award-winning columnist and Shropshire based producer Roger Evans marvels at the plight of Australian truckers.

I’ve always thought that if you were lucky enough to have a regular column in a magazine or newspaper, that you should be able to think up your own subjects to write about and not need to use TV programmes to provide inspiration. But for this issue of CowManagement I will make an exception. I think it is for a good reason, but I shall leave you to be the judge of that. I regularly watch a programme called ‘Outback Truckers’. It’s about the exploits of various Australian lorry drivers.

I don’t watch it because I’m particularly interested in their lorries but because I am fascinated by the sheer scale of what they do. They often set out on journeys of 1,000 miles. They often put three articulated trailers behind one tractor unit. This can be 53 metres long and is called, aptly, a road train. The drivers often run out of tarmac roads and complete their long journeys on what they call dirt roads, which are usually little more than graded sand. These roads dry out into corrugations and the lorries often have to cut their speed to 10mph or the ridges or corrugations will shake the lorries – or their trailers, or their loads, or all three – to pieces.

But it’s not the lorries and the drivers’ difficulties, or the state of the roads, that I find interesting. It’s the country they drive through. Very often they are taking deliveries to vast isolated farms, which they call ‘stations’. At the side of the road will be dust, sand, arid desert conditions, the odd wild camel and beef cattle. There is rarely any grass so I assume the cattle browse the leave of the trees, which are everywhere. They are small trees, easily within reach of cattle.

I saw a driver take his road train to an isolated station to drill a water borehole. He said the station extended to 1.7 million acres. To be fair the cattle didn’t look at all stressed, but they seemed to take great interest in the success, or otherwise, of the water drilling.

I’ve been told farmers have to provide water every 15 miles. Think of a village 15 miles from where you live and imagine your next water trough is there. Try telling that to the Red Tractor Assurance inspector. I’ve yet to see a yellow ear tag while watching the programme, but I bet they put that right when they finally sell the cattle. But it’s hardly a good traceability story, is it? I’m sure that one lorry driver said that one station had 27,000 cattle. Those of us that care for our cattle know that a percentage of those cattle would have to take their chances in those circumstances.

I’m sure that when the time comes and this food is on its way to the UK, they will have a couple of presentable farms to show the media and politicians. But when they say the food is produced to the same standard and attention to detail that is expected of UK producers I shall never believe them. It’s not because they don’t want to do it to our standards, it’s because the scale of what they do and the vastness of where they do it makes it impossible. ‘No worries’, as Aussies lorry drivers say...

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