Cab Cowboys

West Texas is cattle country. Always has been. But some things have changed. Today, truckers are much like modern cowboys as they drive the livestock to its final destination and then haul away the supermarket beef in boxes. The most skillful of the meat transporters may be the minority of drivers who still haul free-swinging sides of beef from slaughterhouse to points south of the border.

There are nearly a million head of cattle in the feedlots around Amarillo and a large fleet of bull racks is needed to transport the cattle from the pens where they are fattening to the slaughterhouse.

Far on the other side of the IBP meat-processing plant, reefers from a dozen trucking outfits grind themselves into the dock amongst the closely spotted, closely dropped 48-foot trailers. Their loads are mostly boxed meat these days, a change from the late 1970s when plenty of swinging meat made its way from western processing houses to eastern groceries and butchers.

Mike Ratkiewicz, executive vice president for K&B Trucking in South Sioux City, Neb., says, “There was plenty of swinging going into Chicago, Detroit, New York, until the stores started wanting the meat to come in pre-cut. The butchers had very little left to do. Cryovac packaging was introduced about that time. This innovation increased the shelf life of meats to 28 days. There was much less demand for hauling carcass after that.” For example, Monfort, a meatpacking outfit and legendary meat hauler, was bought out by ConAgra, and the trucking operation disappeared.

According to veteran swinging meat hauler Bob Thomas, who is now director of resource development for FFE Transportation Services in Dallas, some of the changes in the way meat is hauled was caused in part by the efforts of the meat cutters’ union to have hanging loads cut at the destination rather than in the packing house. “We used to haul hanging to Chicago, then haul it back to Amarillo after the butchers had cut it. It was boxed in Amarillo and shipped to customers from there.” Thus every load of carcass required at least two loads to reach the consumer.

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Dudley Baldwin, owner and president of Baldwin Distribution Services in Amarillo, says his fleet is one of only a handful of companies still handling swinging meat. “A lot of that is interplant moves,” he says. “Almost all our swinging loads go to Mexico.”

K&B also moves interplant carcass loads and some swinging meat in a 28-state operation.

While most cattle wind up as cut and dressed portions in a little cardboard box, or as hamburger or dog food, about 3 percent of Baldwin’s $18 million revenues came from hauling swinging out of the giant IBP processing plant near Amarillo last year. Most of that went to Mexico through Hidalgo or other Rio Grande Valley border towns.

Typically swinging beef travels one of three ways, says Baldwin driver Dick Wilkerson. “It could all come as sides, about 450 pounds apiece,” he says. “It might come as hinds or as forequarters. These loads are already top heavy and tend to move a lot. Hinds and forequarters are shorter cuts. They raise the center of gravity even higher.”

Whole sides of beef hand in the hot box wait to be processed. Sides going into trucks as swinging loads are selected here before they can be cut into filet mignon or made into hamburger.

After slaughter and cleaning, half carcasses – a side of beef – wait in a huge locker until the processing plant needs them. There is a constant flow of carcasses out of the “hot box,” the industry’s ironic term for a chiller, into processing. More than 4,000 head a day go through this plant. Behind the hot box, a dock handles both boxed and railed meat.

On this mid-September ride-along, there are plenty of Baldwin trailers in the shipping lot. Wilkerson’s trailer is locked and loaded with 42,000 pounds of forequarters on long hooks going to Hidalgo for interline with Baldwin’s sister company in Mexico.

We have plenty of time to get there. There is only one potential problem with the Monday morning appointment. No one is 100 percent sure the broker’s office will be open because Sept. 16 is the anniversary of Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain. By the time Wilkerson fuels in Amarillo, it is 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Hidalgo, on the Rio Grande, is 800 miles southeast.

It is likely we could shorten the trip if we took a different route, but Wilkerson is a zealous proponent of thinking and looking as far ahead as possible. Hauling carcass has made him very aware of every bend in the road, every curb and every construction zone.

Wilkerson’s sensitivity to the road surface is remarkable. He knows well in advance where the road is crowned, where it waves and where the ruts are. Hauling swinging meat over the same roads constantly is a definite plus. It is not the kind of load a driver wants to be pulling when he gets surprised by a curve or when he stumbles on to a two-lane with a prominent crown. “With swinging you need to have a plan,” Wilkerson says. “You don’t want to be going through San Antonio at rush hour. You don’t want to get on a winding two-lane you thought was a better road.”

There is obviously more to babying a load of carcass than keeping it between the ditches. Wilkerson defrosts his unit and lets it bleed out: “I always defrost first thing,” he says. “It helps maintain the temperature. They give us five degrees on either side of 34 degrees. You can’t let this load freeze.”

Although Baldwin is willing to pay for motels on this trip since Wilkerson has a passenger on board, he chooses to sleep in the truck where he can listen to the reefer.

Judging by the way I’m feeling this trailer moving, it would be easy for any driver to understand why carcass haulers are particular about their loads and their routes. Wilkerson takes the first corner out of the plant easily, but from the passenger seat it is obvious the load is highly unstable. In the mirror I can see the trailer move from side to side even on straight stretches, and it leans noticeably in turns. Wilkerson says he once saw a trailer leave the plant and land on its side in this first corner.

Baldwin’s trailers are sealed at the Amarillo plant and not unsealed until they reach their destination in Monterey, Mexico, 200 miles south of the border. This load is quarters of select Black Angus beef, according to the paperwork. Wilkerson says that quarters tend to exaggerate some trailer movements more than the larger, heavier, whole sides. “Whole sides hang lower,” he says, “and the center of gravity is lower. The quarters and hinds are short. The center of gravity is pretty high on this load.” The quarters are hung on long hooks rather than short hooks, which may help a little, he says. “Quarters and hinds are easier to load and unload because they’re lighter,” Wilkerson remarks. Most of this work is done by hand, but drivers do not touch the load.

The way a trailer is loaded is important in how it handles on the open road. A loosely packed load of sides of beef means much more trailer movement from side to side and front to back. “Once a load starts to swing,” Wilkerson says, “it’s hard to tell when it will stop.”

In mixed loads, hanging smaller cuts on the outside rail, next to the trailer wall, and packing bigger cuts inside, will cause the outer layer of meat to hit the trailer walls. This is not a good thing. It can add enough force to make an easy turn or a curb into a rollover. Around the coffee table at Baldwin, high short carcasses are called “swinging chicken” or “swinging shrimp.” None of the boys really want to haul either one.

Wilkerson has also hauled hogs on a hook and points out they’re short as well. “You can make them easier to haul by just backing up at a pretty good clip and hitting the brakes,” he says. “There’s so much grease on them they stick together and tighten the load.”

A full complement of meat hooks weighs about 1,500 pounds and must be accounted for on each trip.

Wilkerson will have no such luck with this load of Black Angus quarters. He is glad not to be under a Mexican railer. Mexican rail trailers are older and only 96 inches wide. Their width makes them liable to be very unstable in corners. The wider 102s in Baldwin’s fleet are the newer air ride American railers, and can better handle the load’s high center of gravity. “With a Mexican railer, you can take a 40-mile-an hour-turn at 20 miles an hour and still lift the trailer tandems,” Wilkerson says.

On the other hand, Wilkerson says he prefers spring ride trailers, all things being equal. He believes the air ride allows a little too much side-to-side movement from the swinging loads. Following this logic, a 102-inch spring ride trailer loaded with whole sides on long hooks is theoretically the most stable load. But a driver with a load of swinging beef takes the same precautions no matter what the configuration of his equipment and freight.

Some drivers compare hauling swinging meat to hauling smooth bore tankers. The surge in a partially full tanker can push an unsuspecting driver through an intersection after he thinks he’s stopped, and Wilkerson agrees there are similarities. But the rounded sides of a tank probably help contain the slop of a load much more than the interior walls of a rail trailer. If a driver looks at his load on arrival, blood on the walls indicates just how much the load has moved, and to some extent, the skill of the driver in controlling his load. Wilkerson says he likes to keep his walls unbloodied when he can.

Earl Evans, an owner-operator now running air freight between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, hauled swinging in the 1970s. “We hauled carcass in 38-foot, 41-foot and 42-foot trailers then,” he says. “The loads were tight because the trailers were smaller. It was no big deal. Now with 48s there is plenty of space for a load to move. Some trailers back then had holes drilled in the rails, T-rails they were called, and each carcass was hooked into a hole. That was supposed to keep them from swinging.”

Today, Wilkerson pays extreme attention to his driving. He seldom uses his brakes, and then only when he’s nearly at a stop. “The best way to pull these swinging loads is by looking far enough ahead to give the truck enough time to stop by itself,” he says. “Using the brakes at the wrong time will get it swinging for sure.”

A string of traffic lights in Big Spring demonstrates the truth of Wilkerson’s observation, and so do the lane changes of several clueless automobile jockeys. Wilkerson times the lights and slows down far in advance of any that might turn red on him. He barely touches his brakes through town except when the unexpected gyrations of a four-wheeler prompt him into action.

Wilkerson’s Mack Elite has a 465 up front and pulls well. In the flat Texas Panhandle country, its only real test is accelerating through the get-ons to merge with traffic. He likes the Eaton Fuller Super 10 coupled to the power plant, particularly with swinging loads. “The Super 10 is very smooth because what you’re doing is splitting each gear. You only have to change holes five times instead of 10. That makes it easier to time shifts and keep the load from working against the shift.” The front-to-back movement of the carcasses becomes obvious both when the brakes are applied suddenly to avoid unexpected car movements and when a situation develops which makes it necessary to find a gear and pull quickly. But Wilkerson’s vigilance keeps these situations to a minimum.

In the hill country west of San Antonio, where some grades reach 7 percent, the downhills and the condition of the pavement can get swinging loads to moving. Heavy brake applications going down are not a good idea and Wilkerson manages to hit the bottom with only a few steady applications of the brake.

Perhaps most telling about this load’s volatility is the way swinging loads reacts even in low-speed situations. “You can hit a curb with your trailer tandems pulling out of a truckstop and lose it,” Wilkerson says. And in the dusty pit stops of west Texas, every pothole makes the trailer wiggle like a stepped-on snake. The weight shifts from side to side in unaccountable ways, rocking the cab.

Smooth shifts, smooth acceleration and controlled braking are all techniques Wilkerson and other swinging meat haulers use. But Wilkerson does not use cruise. “Cruise control puts you to sleep,” he says. “I need to concentrate.”

The need for constant control is no more obvious than in curves. Wilkerson does not pull through curves, standard procedure with most other loads. He backs off and rolls through as much as possible, particularly when curves occur on crowned roads. He did not exceed the speed limit once on our trip and often went much slower than the posted limit.

Wilkerson believes it takes maturity to haul carcass. “I wouldn’t put anybody behind the wheel younger than 35,” he says. “You need patience and you sure don’t need to get road rage.”

Wilkerson avoids the feeder road out of the pit stop in San Antonio when we take off next morning to do the last 250 miles to Hidalgo. “That road is squirrelly,” he says, and opts to take the big road one exit to catch I-37 South.

Wilkerson has definite opinions about the American infrastructure. “It’s falling apart,” he says, an opinion even more easily held if one hauls swinging loads. “There are times when the steering wheel becomes useless,” he says. In detours around a construction site there is considerable visible play in the wheel, especially in the ruts caused by truck traffic in
temporary pavement.

Hidalgo is a sprawling Mexican border town on the Rio Grande. It is a little farther than Pharr, Texas, the end of this load’s American journey. From here the trailer will go to Monterey on a Mexican truck and the beef be distributed to the end user.

Wilkerson, who lived in Mexico for six years, thinks there is an expanding market in Mexico for swinging meat. “Mexicans often cook their meat in thin slices over mesquite and propane. It saves fuel if the meat is thin,” he says. “They go to the butcher and want to see a side of beef they can have custom cut.” And as Mexico ratchets up its ability to refrigerate more perishable products coming across the border, the market will grow, Wilkerson believes.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened on our trip. It was just another load of swinging headed for the border. But sometimes the success of a project is measured by what does not happen. So it is with every load of swinging.

Over the years, meatpacking outfits have tried a variety of methods to tighten carcass loads. Some loads, hung from hooks, have also been tied to the floor. Excel, another meatpacking operation, ties its carcass together in the center. Even the old style T-railers, square tubes with holes for each hook, did not do much to prevent swinging meat from swinging, says Earl Evans. But the job can still be nerve wracking and, as Wilkerson inevitably says, “It’s a whole different story in the winter.”

It seems that driving beef is just as tough a job today as it was back when Texas was young and the cattle were on the hoof.

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