“I grew up around trucks but went straight out of school onto a handpiece in the shearing shed, being a rousie and shearing, until I worked out it was easier throwing sheep onto a truck than blowing the jackets off them,” said Nathan Rhodes with a laugh.
From that point on the wheels have rolled and today, Nathan, in partnership with wife Joanne, have a two-truck livestock transport operation based at Lowesdale, just outside Corowa in southern New South Wales.
Today, the NJR Trucking operation consists of a 2019 Kenworth T659 and a 2002 K104 Aerodyne, with both trucks running B-doubles hauling primarily sheep from saleyards to a number of meat processors in the southern states.
“It was a childhood dream really; I wanted to get my own truck and call my own shots so we ended up buying the 104. That should have been our first home, but we bought a truck instead,” he said.
Having been exposed to trucks from a young age with his father Les Rhodes running trucks including Ford LNT’s and International S-Lines carting livestock, after his time in the shearing sheds, Nathan reckoned trucking was the way to go.
“I went over to Western Australia and was carting optic fibre from Dampier to Tom Price, did that for 12 months – that wasn’t a bad gig. I came back over east and started with Don Watson up and down the highway carting hanging meat and met Jo along the way, but I wanted to get working for myself, that was always the dream.”
The couple started out with a tipper set but bad timing with the drought starting to bite saw a change of direction into livestock and a working association with Barry Lewington which started in 2015 and continues through to today.
“We bought the Aerodyne and Dad had a crate set as he was still in trucks with grain. I thought ‘it won’t be that hard-to-find work’. I rang Barry and he said, ‘when can you start? You can start Monday at Corowa’ and that was it!
“When I stated with the Aerodyne it was short haul stuff such as from Corowa to Tallangatta to see how I could do the job, then on to the longer runs, Nundroo over in South Australia, and out around Cobar, Louth, Bourke, and Cameron’s Corner. I did a lot of dirt road running back at the start.”
Currently the NJR operation essentially follows the weekly livestock sale schedule through New South Wales, with buyers for a number of the major meat processors needing to fill orders and subsequently needing the transport to get their quotas from the yards to the abattoirs.
While his loading and destination points are regular the schedule can vary considerably from week to week.
“The abattoirs get a contract to fill so you turn up at the start of a sale and buyers from the abattoirs are there, one buyer might buy three or four loads, the next one might buy one load or six. It’s usually Dubbo and Forbes, then Yass and Carcoar mid-week and Wagga Thursday which is always a big turnout – they might have 50,000-plus plus there.”
As a result, Nathan is a regular visitor to meat processors in Melbourne, Wodonga, and Tallangatta with occasional runs to Goulburn or Warragul.
“The work is constant but it’s up and down, one week you’re run off your feet the next week its nice and steady but it’s never like that for too long! It’s a variety of work, never a routine,” he said.
In 2019 the NJR fleet doubled with the addition of the T659 which was purchased out of Twin City Kenworth DAF in Wodonga. With a Cummins X15 under the hood the T659 was spec’d to pull big loads and as such is rated to 130 tonne and subsequently the truck has ticked over 540,000 largely trouble-free kilometres.
However, making the shift out of the K104 into the longer T659 was not without its dramas as Nathan recalled with a smile.
“When we got it Jo and I picked it up out of Kenworth in Bayswater to take it to get painted. I turned left out of the factory into Canterbury Road and had to go up a bit to do a U-turn. I thought it would just turn like the Aerodyne.
“I had to take a few bites to turn it around and the traffic is banked up and Jo’s like ‘what are you doing?’ “I said ‘I don’t know, I don’t think I will be able to drive this once I get two trailers behind it!’ But within a week I could put it anywhere I could put the Aerodyne. It has been a good truck and hasn’t let us down. It’s light enough in the tare but heavy enough to be pulling 130 tonne.”
The working day starts for Nathan once the livestock are sold in the afternoon and as such, he does most of his driving during the night heading to the southern abattoirs, particularly with the Melbourne runs as he aims to avoid the peak traffic times.
“I aim to be out of the city by 7am parked up, and that’s where everyone on the highway sees you giving you a toot thinking ‘he doesn’t get much done!’ Of course, when they are in bed, we are starting up but that’s how it goes.”
With the couple and their three children on a small rural holding at Lowesdale, plans are afoot to build a shed and make the access for B-doubles a little easier.
In terms of the next generation one day taking over the reins, Nathan and Joanne reckon 4-year-old Blair is the most likely at this stage to be the third generation Rhodes family member hauling livestock. But for the time being Nathan reckons that decision he made in the shearing shed some years ago was the right one.
“I would rather do stock than anything else, I enjoy doing it, I have three good dogs, you load and unload yourself. You are not really dealing with anyone like a forklift driver or having someone telling you to put a hard hat on – you do your own thing.
“There’s never a dull moment and you’re not getting into the rut of doing the same run all the time – there’s always something different.”