Surrounded by rural holdings and nestled in the green foothills of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney is the picturesque village of Kurmond.
The Bennett family have been involved in agriculture and transport for five generations and continue to provide a vital link between farmers and hungry livestock.
After following his father Ron, and his grandfather Jack, into farming and transport Steve Bennett became instrumental in the design and development of some specialised trailers for carrying large quantities of empty pallets.
He did this for around seven years before selling off his trucks and going back to the family’s roots of farming fodder crops such as lucerne in the Forbes area of western NSW.
As Steve began supplying hay and chaff to livestock owners he realised the need for trucks to transport his produce to his clients.
Eventually he accepted a good offer and the farm was sold and Steve went on to develop the current feed merchant business, mostly specialising in fodder suitable for horses, and with it the in-house transport operation.
The feed industry has changed significantly with the advent of social media and much of the trading is now done via platforms such as Facebook rather than the traditional method of advertising in rural newspapers.
“I’m computer literate but I’m not social savvy,” says Steve. “I stood back and realised this is my son Jack’s world. Jack was just starting into the buying and selling of feed products, so I said it was time to hand over the day to day running to him, and I slipped back into the driving role. I’ve found that at many of the farms we deal with, the sons are taking over as well.”
Most of the feed runs are overnight which suits Steve. The priority is their own freight and it is not unusual to factor in running back empty from delivering feed.
However, if it can be managed to suit their own feed transport logistics the Bennett trucks also carry some overnight freight for Direct Freight Express through the central west of the state including areas around Orange, Bathurst, Dubbo and Goulburn.
“If we’ve got a truck that’s not in a hurry to come back and if we have a night free or a leg free, we give that first option to DFE,” says Jack. “That’s why we are Kurmond Feed and Freight, because we freight feed and we also run some general freight.”
In an industry dependent upon predictable climate conditions, Mother Nature can present the biggest challenges.
Good rainfall, at the right time of year, leads to good summer growth, but a dry season can result in an increase in demand at the same time that suitable produce becomes a little harder to source.
“In full drought the volume of demand is ridiculous and supply becomes an issue. The cost of fodder goes up and sometimes we don’t know the price until we’re loading the truck,” says Steve.
Currently, much of the feed supply is sourced in Victoria and when volume is short Bennett’s will travel as far as South Australia to obtain quality fodder.
The Bennett’s now have a strong affiliation with a chaff mill located in Castlemaine and it took a year to develop a level of trust.
“He didn’t want to be anywhere other than Victoria because they didn’t want to be responsible for product that he could not look at or evaluate himself at the point of delivery,” says Steve.
Most of the regular clients are wholesalers such as stock feed stores and deliveries are common to places such as Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Dubbo as well as to the local Hawkesbury region.
There has been a rise in the amount of direct sales to people such as the owners of two or three horses, through to multi-million dollar racehorse stables, and it is important to locate the right feeds for each purpose.
“Not only are we transporters, we’re sales reps for other people’s product,” says Steve. “We’ve got to be able to on-sell their products and even though we haven’t had any part in producing them we have a level of responsibility to it.”
At the minute, the business model revolves around delivery according to order, which can present some logistical challenges and future plans may involve establishing a storage hub north of the Victorian border.
The number of deliveries of produce is increasing at the same time as the quantity per delivery is decreasing and having the ability to store some feed would contribute to the overall efficiency of the operation.
The first trucks Steve used in this business were small Isuzu rigids sometimes hauling a small trailer, then Steve had a succession of UDs which eventually lead him to Mack prime movers as the loads and trailers got larger.
A second-hand Mercedes-Benz Atego had provided an extended period of great service towing a pig trailer and as the requirements for prime movers manifested, Steve stayed with Mercedes-Benz and bought his first Actros (a V8) which again provided good service for around 700,000 kilometres. This was followed by a 2658 Actros.
“Most of what we do involves horse feed but we only own one horse,” he explains. “People say to me, ‘you must know a lot about horses’ but the only horsepower is under the cab.”
The latest Actros 2663 to wear the Kurmond Feed and Freight livery is loaded with technology features such as the Multimedia Cockpit with two high-resolution tablet-style display screens on the dashboard, instead of the traditional instrument cluster with a centre screen and speedo and tacho.
The new Actros also uses the fuel-saving Predictive Powertrain Control system which uses topographical data and GPS to help the transmission pick the right gear for the terrain.
Steve admits he is still coming to terms with some of the technology.
“Towing a single trailer at 42.5 tonnes I’ll get 2.4 km/l, while Jack gets 3.0. Jack is from the new generation and knows how to drive that truck better than me,” he says.
“When you can run a truck from Kurmond to Coffs Harbour and back, with four deliveries along the way, and get 3.0 kilometres per litre out of a 630hp truck that’s not dawdling, and that sums it up as to why I stayed with Mercedes-Benz. I talk to other truck owners and they just envy that sort of economy. We thought the V8 was going good at 1.9 km/l, but with this new Actros in B-double configuration we’re getting 2.2 – 2.4km/l even though we are yet to receive the driver training from Mercedes-Benz.”
The past couple of years have tested many sectors of the Australian agricultural industry with the effects of drought and fires followed by the flooding rains of the el Nino weather system.
Then came the COVID situation which didn’t impact the feed side of things immediately but has affected business.
“At the start it actually increased demand by around ten per cent because people stopped attending events such as gymkhanas, so many had to keep feeding their horses on small holdings,” says Jack.
Even with lockdown now easing people aren’t going to gymkhanas as much as previously which is reflected in the change in demand.
As long term residents of the Kurmond area the Bennett family is mindful of their local economy and consciously purchase items such as fuel and tyres locally, which makes them important to their local community.
They are also important to communities where they pick up fodder and obviously important to communities where they deliver.
“It’s an industry we love and the family has been in it for a long time,” says Steve. “Social media keeps us on our toes. In the old days one good customer would bring three new ones with them and one disgruntled would take five with them. But a negative post on Facebook will lose many more. We recognise our level of service has to be increased now more than ever.”