Eagle Transport thriving with a lean, efficient milk-hauling operation

Oct. 6, 2017
IN THE late 1980s, brothers Paul and Larry Shirk were looking for better truck driving opportunities. Once farmers in northwestern Missouri, they were driving for a general freight hauler.

IN THE late 1980s, brothers Paul and Larry Shirk were looking for better truck driving opportunities. Once farmers in northwestern Missouri, they were driving for a general freight hauler.

Paul recounts that they began to notice that they were hauling a lot of loads over the Indiana East-West Toll Road (I-80/I-90) that runs across northern Indiana. They decided that might be a good area to explore for better driving jobs. It turned out to be an astute business decision.

In short order, they found work with a milk hauler located near Goshen, Indiana. By 1991, they were owner-operators with two tractors and were beginning to build what is now Eagle Transport Group LLC.

Today, the milk hauler runs 24 tractors and 50 sanitary tank trailers. Raw milk accounts for a majority of the loads, but the fleet also handles cream, whey, and simple syrup (liquid sweetener made from cane and beet sugar).

Eagle Transport provides far pick-up and plant-to-plant transportation within a 350-mile radius of Goshen, serving customers as far away as Texas and New York. Many loads go to the nearby states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Large to small

Cream dominates the plant-to-plant movements. “We haul close to 100% of the output of a large plant in Goshen,” Gene says. “That is roughly 110 loads a month.”

Farm pick-up ranges from the very large to the very small. Trailers are staged at some of the largest dairy farms. The milk goes directly from the cows, through a chiller, and into the tank trailer. One dairy farm near Goshen loads the trailers and shuttles them to the Eagle Transport parking lot.

On the smaller side are local Amish farmers that produce organic milk from livestock raised according to organic farming methods. Many of the herds range from 30 to 80 cows. The carrier runs two daycab rigs to serve these farms.

“It may take 20 stops to fill a 6,200-gallon tank trailer,” says Paul’s son Gene Shirk, vice-president of Eagle Transport. “Each farm may generate as little as a couple hundred gallons of milk. Demand for organic milk has been growing, and it keeps us busy.”

Regardless of the size of a dairy farm, this is a business that never sleeps. Cows must be milked twice a day, seven-days a week.

“We never have a day off,” Gene Shirk says. “And pick-ups and deliveries can be a large jigsaw puzzle—things get adjusted all the time based on milk production and where processors want milk delivered.

Competitive business

All told, this is a high-stress business. Not everyone can do it, and it’s very competitive. Dairy farmers are all about costs, so margins are very thin. For milk transporters, those who are the most efficient are the ones who stay in business.”

Eagle Transport’s management pursues efficiency from top to bottom. The drive to be most efficient played a significant role in the carrier’s decision to adopt the BOLT fleet management system.

Before Eagle Transport made the shift to the BOLT system, it had a manual fleet management system that relied on Excel spread sheets and constant phone calls between drivers and dispatch to confirm deliveries and routing for new pick-ups. It left room for inefficiency and errors, and it took a lot of manpower to manage the business.

In 2013, Eagle Transport began work with BOLT to transform its fleet management platform. The carrier installed Omnitrac on-board computers with electronic driver log capabilities and BOLT’s web-based platform to manage the data. That combination has led to a significant decrease in dispatch hours, a more efficient distribution system, robust productivity reports and record-keeping, and payroll that can be done in less time with more accuracy.

“Managing our business is much less labor intensive now,” Gene says. “It all starts by using BOLT’s ‘route builder’ feature, which was modified for our business.”

Flexible scheduling

The feature can build any number of repeatable inputs—same pickup, same deliveries, fixed pricing—as examples. BOLT then creates a menu for each farm to enter its production and “current cow (milk production) schedule.” This allows Eagle Transport to create a three- to four-day schedule for each farm. Once the data is input, each load can be tracked from pending, to scheduled, to delivered.

According to Gene Shirk, time-stamping at pick-up and delivery, courtesy of Omnitracs, then comes into play, along with inputs from drivers. But schedules can vary once the truck is at the farm. Dairy farms can have thousands of cattle, and cows produce milk two to three times a day. That means the “actual” schedule can vary up to an hour or more on any given day. Variances can be caused by weather, feed—even music. Yes, cows can be serenaded. Only the cows know when they are ready for milking.

If there is a “cow driven change” the driver enters that through Omnitracs or calls dispatch. This triggers an update to the scheduled program for the remaining planned period.

Once milk is collected, weight data is entered into Omnitracs for Department of Transportation regulations and liquid volume. Then, it’s off to the dairy plant.

After a delivery is made, dispatcher Howard Miller says BOLT makes assigning the next load easy: “I have visibility of when a driver is unloading and the number of driving hours that are available. I can then look at farm schedules and determine if our driver can pick up a new load and either deliver to the dairy, or drop the trailer for a second driver to make the delivery.”

According to Gene Shirk, this step is critical—there are very tight restrictions on how long milk can stay in the trailer. If the time restriction is not met the entire load has to be disposed.

“Temperature is critical,” he says. “We want the milk to be at 36°F to 38°F at the time of pick up. Receivers typically will reject a load at 42°F.”

Schedule changes

Since farms have contracts with large processors, which have a multitude of processing facilities, Miller says, it’s not uncommon to have processors call and request a delivery change mid-stream.

“It happens all the time,” he says. “And we’re ready for it. Due to the multi-day farm schedule and real time data from Omnitracs, we can execute a series of trailer swaps (drop-and-hook process) to achieve the time restriction schedules. On occasion, a stand-by driver may be called in to meet the requirements. The key to this is dynamic scheduling—we constantly monitor real-time movements and what assets are available on an exception basis.”

Eagle Transport also can visually see the status of all loads. Tracking through Omnitracs occurs approximately every 15 minutes updating location, truck progress and the current trip route. The screen will change colors reflecting “on time,” “possibly late,” and “definitely late.”

“This gives us a level of customer service we never had before,” Gene says. “We can always update our customers. They know exactly what is happening with their loads.”

Data rich

What’s more, BOLT gives Eagle Transport information on what’s happening with its own business. “The amount of information I can pull from BOLT is just tremendous,” he says. “We know exactly when milk was picked up and delivered, the amount of milk in the load, and the work history for our drivers. We can see how many miles were driven empty versus loaded, and can now reward drivers with bonuses based on the information we have at our fingertips.”

And that information also migrates into payroll, automatically. According to Gene Shirk, he and his staff used to manually input trip reports and calculate delivery distances, then enter the information into QuickBooks. No longer.

“We cut the time spent on payroll in half,” he says. “Since BOLT System built PC Miler into our fleet management system we know the GPS calculated mileage driven. And, our drivers know that—there’s never a question on mileage.”

Those drivers are a mix of company employees and owner-operators. All are veteran truck drivers with years of experience. Some like a routine and are dedicated to specific cargoes, such as the liquid sugar movements. Others want a variety of loads and destinations.

Fleet equipment

Company drivers are primarily assigned to Volvo sleeper tractors. Eagle Transport also runs a couple of Kenworth T660 glider kits with 500-horsepower Detroit Diesel Series 60 engines.

Newer Volvos are specified with the Volvo D13 engine rated at 435 horsepower. Older tractors in the fleet have 530-hp Cummins ISX-15 engines. Newer Volvos have iShift automated transmissions, while older trucks run Eaton Fuller 13-speed manual transmissions.

All of the trailers in the fleet are stainless steel non-code sanitary tankers from Walker Stainless Equipment. The 6,200-gallon tanks are unbaffled and have a three-inch rear discharge valve.   ♦

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.