There's an old adage that says, “Work with what you have.” What southwestern Wisconsin has are long hard winters and a lot of hills. That's something drivers for Neitzel Trucking have learned to contend with daily while picking up milk from area farms and delivering it to the trucking company's customer, AMPI (Associated Milk Producers Inc.), at its Blair, WI, cheese-processing plant.
Neitzel Trucking, based in Alma, WI, is an equal partnership between Gerald Neitzel and his son Timothy. Gerald says he began operating his own route in 1962, picking up 17,000 lb. of milk from 39 farms each day with just one truck.
By comparison, Neitzel's eight-truck fleet currently averages 750,000-800,000 lb. per day during the May-June busy season, when milk production is highest at the dairy farms. He has 13 drivers on the payroll, 9 or 10 of which he notes are steady drivers, the rest part-timers. His present-day clientele numbers about 175 dairy farmers.
Neitzel says that in his geographic area the use of straight trucks makes much more sense than tractor-trailers. “Snow and ice are our biggest threat. We had over two feet of snow one day this spring,” he states. “Plus, in Buffalo county [where Alma is located] the hills are over 570 feet above the Mississippi River. Traveling up and down the bluffs to get to the dairy farms is very treacherous.”
Neitzel Trucking runs all Sterling Truck units and currently has five 5-axle trucks and three 7-axle Sterling LT9513 Class 8 trucks that have been introduced into the fleet starting with the 2004 model year.
The move to 7-axle trucks was prompted by an increase in milk production at the dairy farms. “When picking up milk in Wisconsin,” Neitzel explains, “we're required to take everything that's in the farmer's holding tank — split loads are not allowed. We needed trucks that could give us extra capacity and do so within the state's legal weight limit, which is only 75,000 lb. gross weight for a quad-axle truck, but 80,000 lb. for a seven-axle unit.
“We went to great lengths to lighten up the specs on our trucks and get as much capacity as possible,” he adds. The strategy has worked, generating $25,000 more in annual revenue for Neitzel Trucking.
Lightweight specs were adopted with the help of Tom Krajewski from the Sterling Truck dealership in La Crosse, WI. Wherever possible, lightweight components were used, including lighter weight axles, an all-aluminum truck cab, Alcoa wheels and aluminum hubs, as well as milk tanks made of a lighter-gauge stainless steel.
The Sterling LT9513 units are powered by 450-hp. Mercedes-Benz engines and feature 10-sp. Fuller transmissions. The 7-axle chassis is built by Watson & Chalin especially for Neitzel's operation. The fleet also uses a Watson & Chalin non-steering 25,000-lb.-capacity lift axle to help redistribute the weight when climbing hills. To carry the milk, Neitzel specs Brenner lightweight 6,000-gal. capacity sanitary cargo tanks.
To help minimize fuel costs, Neitzel hires drivers who live near their routes so some of them can take the trucks home with them at the end of the day. “Only three of my trucks come back to Alma each night. That eliminates drivers bringing the truck to home base, then having to drive 90 miles the other way to start their designated route.”
Drivers' routes cover Wisconsin's Buffalo, Pepin, Eau Claire, Trempealeau, Jackson and Clark counties, all within a 75-mi. radius of the cheese plant. “Most of the farmers are on every-other-day pickup schedules,” Neitzel explains, “with some on twice-a-day pickup, others three times a day, and still others three times in two days, so our drivers end up working different routes every other day.”
Between keeping fuel costs down and maximizing milk-truck capacity, Neitzel Trucking is a role model for others in the business. “By going to the seven-axle trucks we've increased payload capacity from 47,000 to 49,000 lb. up to 53,000 and 54,000 lb. legally. And by switching to lightweight specs, those trucks weigh no more than our five-axle units do.”