Cereals 2010: New sugar beet transport scheme under scrutiny

The first recommendations to come from British Sugar’s transport efficiency study are being implemented in a pilot scheme at the company’s Wissington and Newark factories later this year.

In a radical shake-up of existing arrangements, British Sugar will be co-ordinating all the haulage requirements of growers who sign up to the scheme, doing away with the much-criticised transport allowance.

Instead, an ex-farm price will be paid for the beet, with British Sugar taking on the management and costs of the haulage, as well as the co-ordination of the delivery logistics. For those who want it, a harvesting option is also available.

For growers, it heralds the end to haggling over rising diesel costs and the need to negotiate with a haulier every year, as well as the financially inadequate transport allowance.

For hauliers, it could be the start of long-term contracts in defined British Sugar haulage territories, extended delivery time windows and far greater fleet efficiency.

The aim of the scheme, says British Sugar, is to offer a more efficient and financially attractive solution to beet logistics, maximising the recovery and delivery of paid yield. And with that in mind, it’s hard to argue with the proposal.

But not everyone is convinced. Critics point out that the same transport efficiency study also revealed that 80% of growers are happy with the current situation, with most of them having well established and long-standing relationships with their chosen hauliers.

William Martin, chairman of the NFU Sugar Board, acknowledges this fact. “Operationally, they are happy,” he says. “But the level of the transport allowance has always been a bone of contention – for a long time they’ve felt that it hasn’t been enough.

“What’s more, a constant complaint from growers has been poor co-ordination of harvesting and haulage. Too often, their beet is left lying on a pad losing sugar, when it should be on its way to the factory.”

He stresses that growers are not having a blueprint solution imposed on them. “The pilot scheme is voluntary and it will only be judged a success if it improves the status quo. It will be monitored and measured by independent experts – remember that we’re looking for cost savings and greater efficiency.”

Certainly, there’s no shortage of potential savings. The study identified that £8m of the total £27.6m operating cost could be recouped, while the number of lorries involved in the transport operation could be reduced from more than 2000 to fewer than 400.

One grower who doesn’t plan to make any changes to his arrangements is E H Morris (Stonea), near March, Cambridgeshire, who works very closely with D&J Transport during the campaign.

“Maybe I’m just very lucky, but I can’t see how they can improve on what’s being done here,” says Mike Morris. “It’s a tried and tested system.”

Detailed knowledge of his farm, together with professional drivers operating specialist cleaning and loading equipment, mean that his haulier is able to offer a personal service that he believes would be difficult to beat.

“Once the campaign is under way, it’s all about communication. They know what I expect from them and they’ve never failed to deliver. I can’t see any reason to change a system which works so well – for both of the parties involved.”

But other growers, who have already taken steps to form delivery groups, see the pilot scheme as a natural progression and are keen for it to be a success.

Notable examples include the Bury Beet Factory group, which manages the lifting and hauling operation of 100,000t of beet from seven farms in Suffolk, and the White Cross Beet Syndicate in north Norfolk, which is formed of up to 30 growers.

For both groups, collaboration has resulted in efficiencies of 10-15%, allowing them to make better use of harvesting and haulage equipment, while also presenting a united front to British Sugar.

David Papworth, co-ordinator of the White Cross Beet Syndicate, says it’s in everyone’s interest to become more efficient. “There’s nothing to fear from this proposal and everything to gain. We all need to takes costs out of the operation.”

In the meantime, every haulier points to another part of the sugar beet transport process which could be improved – queuing at the factory gates. The consultants who undertook the efficiency study were quick to recognise it and have also proposed extended opening hours.

“Lorries parked up at weighbridges, factories closed at weekends and long queues at peak times are all preventing progress and making it difficult to achieve a smooth flow of deliveries,” says Chris Douglas of TTR, who carried out the study.

“That’s why we have suggested extended factory operating hours. And these will also be trialled at selected sites this year.”

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