The ground is soggy underfoot. Dams are nearing capacity. The State’s biggest catchment, the Thompson Dam, received 166mm in July and is nearly 70 per cent full, an increase of 19 per cent on the same time last year.
It’s been one of those winters in Melbourne. Sudden downpours often clearing before an unsettling southerly has damp trees lashing each other. Everything seems more vivid, greener. Since April the landscape of the outer metropolitan fringe has taken on a pastoral quality one associates with postcards from the Welsh countryside.
The first four months of the year saw over 400mm of rain across the state, the second wettest start to the year since 1924. All that is good news for farmers and livestock. For transport businesses servicing the agricultural sector it can be more problematic.
Site access for fertiliser specialist JCM Spreading is an imperative part of their operations and one they take seriously. They must move when they can and when they can move they can’t afford to get stuck.
Contending in all terrain environments especially soft paddocks such as those likely encountered around Melbourne during its six-month long winters makes the choice of commercial vehicle a simple one for Justin McGhee owner of JCM Spreading. He runs four MAN TGM 18.340 4x4s from his base of Koo Wee Rup, a rural area on the edge of Western Port Bay.
As a subcontractor for Brown’s Fertilisers, Justin co-ordinates his team of drivers, of which he is also one, between orchards, golf courses, sports grounds, dairies and beef farms from West Gippsland, the Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Ranges and as far west as Bacchus Marsh.
“We do anything really that requires fertiliser that we can get trucks onto,” Justin says. “That can often mean working in paddocks and on the hilly mountain goat stuff.”
The carrying and towing capacity of the MAN TGM 18.340 makes it appealing. Its low tare weight is considered ideal for adding a spreader body.
This part of the build is not performed by Westar Trucks in Derrimut where they were purchased but in Violet Town in Central Victoria.
Once the cab chassis is ready the vehicle is sent to Comspread Engineering, who fit the bin, with electronics. From there the truck gets shipped back so it can be equipped with the central tyre inflation system by CTI before it enters service.
The build and attachment of the spreader bin takes around eight weeks. As the trucks are turned over every four years the process has been mastered to the point the spreader bin is usually ready to go each time Justin invests in a new model MAN.
“By the time you add on the spreader body and the other bits and pieces they are still lighter than an IVECO or Mercedes-Benz and a few other trucks weightwise,” he says. “The power to weight ratio on the MANs is very good.”
The engine more than compensates for the relatively light 15 tonnes cab chassis with 340 horsepower. The wheels can be locked via front and rear wheel diff locks, a given for the application.
Pressure on each tyre can be changed from in the cab through an air inflation system. Justin opts for an aggressive radial Michelin super single tractor tyre rated to a 95 TLR index. It’s ideal for softer ground and varying conditions.
“It gives you superior traction to get around on site,” he says. “On farms we can’t afford to get stuck. My rule is don’t make a mess. We spread fertiliser not mud.”
The automated ZF 12 9-speed transmission helps to squeeze the most from its low range especially on steep embankments. Offroad the gearing approaches a ratio 1.6:1, almost halving every gear for greater safety and control.
“That’s how our drivers like to work,” Justin says. “I’ve found the reliability to be excellent.”
Justin measures the lifespan on the vehicles in hours rather than kilometres. The business does between 2200 to 2500 hours across the fleet for the year. Vehicles are serviced every 400 hours.
That works out, according to Justin, roughly every five to six weeks depending on how busy the business is at the time.
“It’s what works best for us at the moment,” says Justin. “I’m told by people that we do a lot more hours than many of the other depots do. There’s less of us guys so we work more efficiently across the longest hours we can. So that at least when you get to the quiet times of year you don’t have as many staff not doing as much. The work is always there for us.”
The job itself is dependent on environmental factors such as the requirements that differ between agricultural or horticultural practices and spreading lime versus spreading fertiliser.
Justin’s drivers have different capabilities. Some are attuned to market gardens where foul manure is more commonly used while others are experienced hands on dairy farms.
They specialise where its appropriate. One might be more experienced working in apple orchards. As the boss Justin is adaptable to all job types and conditions. He’s had to be.
“I’m in the trucks all the time so I pretty much do everything,” he says. “I’ve been at it for a while.”
Justin started out working for a local depot. That lasted 13 years before he went out on his own. An opportunity to work with trucks arose at a market garden where the owner had announced his intentions to semi-retire. So Justin purchased two of his trucks.
That original truck, also a MAN, had accumulated an impressive 22,000 hours by the time it was sold for $60,000. He vouches for the resale value of the MAN vehicles.
“I’ve bought, to this point, seven new trucks and sold three of them. The resale value is great,” he says. “Every time I’ve got back good money on the trucks and they’ve done upwards of 10,000 hours.”
Smart investments in diversifying its customer base means the business, unlike some others in Central Victoria, isn’t overly reliant on seasonal activity.
In December when things tend to get quiet JCM Spreading can focus on asparagus fertiliser locally.
“It so happens that certain work gets busy when other work is stopping. We do a large variety of work,” he explains.
“The horticultural work we do falls during the dryer months when there’s not as much fertiliser so that offsets demand. Most dairies and beef farms are winding down around Christmas for boosting in hay and silage.”
The work continues all year round. Generally, the most limiting factor is flooded paddocks. Whereas many firms might go quiet over the summer JCM Spreading has diversified its customer base to ensure the trucks are always in use.
In April the business was at its busiest as many farmers were concerned that there might be shortage of fertiliser with international shipping coming abruptly to a halt.
JCM Spreading increased its customary output, as a result, by close to 25 per cent according to Justin. The electronic tracking on the new MAN TGM trucks helps Justin cost out every job. He’s also now able to carry more product (the chassis rails are only 220mm tall) while reducing fuel consumption.
MAN’s ongoing evolution in engine technology means the new TGM Euro 5 SCR version is on order and due to arrive later this year, complementing the proven EGR engine available today.
Given its superior tare weight, the MAN TGM is often the preferred medium duty truck of companies that use mobile cranes and cherry pickers, common among energy providers, given special purpose vehicles can legally go to 17-tonnes.
In the fertiliser segment they remain an undisputed champion in Victoria.
“Other people sing the praises of other trucks and they also complain about them a lot,” he says. “I’ve been around for 20 years and MAN is by far the best truck in this application.”