Like clockwork, three trucks loaded with hay depart from Johnny Granstrom's Holstein, NE, farm Monday mornings, head east and return Friday afternoons.
That regular truck schedule is relatively new for Granstrom and his business partner and son, J.J. Until about 18 months ago, they relied on commercial carriers to transport all of the alfalfa and grass hay they raise on 5,000 acres of owned and rented land. But frustrated by rising costs and the difficulty of lining up commercial trucking, they bought their first truck in May 2003 and added two more this year.
“When we started in the commercial hay business seven years ago, it was very easy to line up the trucking we needed,” Granstrom recalls. “But a lot of truckers went out of business after the 9-11 terrorist attacks because of the downturn in the economy. Skyrocketing insurance and fuel costs haven't helped, either.”
In particular, the Granstroms had a hard time finding carriers who wanted to make regular trips at fair prices to Maryland, Massachusetts and New York — where many of their dairy clients are located.
“We couldn't find very many carriers who wanted to go there, and if we did, they charged a premium,” says Granstrom. “We think that reluctance had a lot to do with the traffic. One day I made 22 calls to try to get commercial trucking lined up for one customer. It was frustrating and time-consuming.”
While many commercial hay growers have owned their own trucks and employed their own drivers for many years, it's a growing trend in Nebraska, says Barb Kinnan.
“Trucking is becoming a big nightmare,” says Kinnan, marketing director of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association. “Finding somebody who wants to haul hay has become extremely difficult. For many of our members, relying on commercial carriers just isn't working anymore.”
Adds Granstrom: “A friend of mine here in Nebraska tried for six weeks to get trucking arranged for a load of his hay. He couldn't get anything lined up and the dairy producer eventually cancelled the order.”
To get started in the trucking business, the Granstroms formed a limited liability corporation — Granstrom Trucking — that's separate from their farming operation. They scoured the Internet and read The Truck Paper to find the semi tractors they wanted. They found three used ones, each with 500,000 miles on it, that fit their needs.
“That's not too many miles for a semi,” says Granstrom.
“We tried to buy attractive cabs that our drivers would be proud of. They like to look sharp on the road and when they pull into somebody's farm. We also looked for Detroit engines, because they offer a little bit better mileage.”
The Granstroms equipped each semi with a 53'-long trailer to maximize the number of 4 × 4 × 8' rectangular bales they could transport.
They hired three full-time, over-the-road truck drivers they heard about through friends or acquaintances. “We relied on word-of-mouth to hire good drivers after an ad in the paper yielded 45 replies but no good leads. Our drivers each brought 15-25 years of trucking experience to the company.”
Granstrom says his drivers expend extra effort to keep expenses down.
“Our drivers are cautious and maintain sensible speeds; that keeps our insurance costs more manageable. They're also very conscientious about buying fuel at truck stops that have the lowest prices.”
The drivers are expected to be friendly and courteous.
“Sometimes it takes a long time to unload a semi of hay, so you need them to be patient.”
The Granstroms also added a full-time mechanic and an office manager to their payroll. While Johnny oversees the harvesting operations for the farm, J.J. spends many hours in the office, selling hay, coordinating delivery times and arranging backhauls.
“Backhauling is a must. We haul just about everything, including lumber, containers, machinery and aviation equipment.”
To find backhaul loads, they work with brokers and subscribe to a couple of Internet services that list cargo that needs transporting. “J.J. checks the lists of cargo that fits our truckers' schedules and then makes several telephone calls to get things arranged.”
By owning their own trucks and employing professional drivers, the father and son are able to offer their customers better service.
“Dairy producers are busy people,” says Granstrom. “When they need hay, we want to be able to get it there as quickly as possible and on the day and at the time they want it. Our customers have noticed the difference. Owning and operating our own trucks gives them more confidence that the hay will arrive on the day we say it will be there.”