Lee Pitts: Boxed Beef
Years ago I got a call from a college student who was doing his Senior Project in order to graduate. He told me he had a groundbreaking idea and wanted my opinion of it. I asked him what his BIG IDEA was and he replied, “containerized shipping.” As the son of a long haul trucker I had to break the news to him that his idea was already being implemented as everything from cheap Chinese toys to apples and oranges are now shipped in modules that can easily be craned on to a truck’s trailer or a railroad car.
“I realize that,” he said. “My idea is to use those same containers to haul livestock.”
Whoa! Now that was a new idea! I suppose the caller wanted to duplicate Fred Smith’s outlandish scheme he outlined in a Yale economics class paper that earned him a C grade. The caller wanted to do for livestock what Fred Smith had done for important paperwork and packages when he later created Fed Ex based on that college paper.
“Shipping livestock in containers is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” I told the young man. “That’s something a lonely sheepherder might think up but certainly not an intelligent cattleman.”
Believe me, if it would have been a great idea I’d have stolen it and with all the money I made I would’ve bought a big, beautiful ranch where it rains on a semi-regular basis and I would have stocked it with the prettiest cows you ever laid your eyes on. I’d have bought a fairly recent model pickup with a heater and air conditioner that work, a dog that didn’t chase cows and a horse that did; maybe even a brand new vacuum cleaner for my wife.
I proceeded to outline all the reasons why containerized shipping for livestock would never happen. “Ranchers would have to buy these containers and have a big crane at the ranch to load them. Then they’d ship them to an auction market which would also have to have several big cranes like those that dot the landscape in Long Beach and Seattle. That would be a sizable investment and would probably be a deal breaker right there. They’d have to unload the cattle to sell them and then load them again to ship them and it has been my experience that getting cattle to enter a dark confined space is hard enough the first time but to have to do it multiple times would drive a man to drink. Besides, what’s the benefit?”
“I’ve interviewed several truckers for my paper and they all said that one of their biggest problems is finding back-hauls. With my system that problem is eliminated.”
“Not really,” I replied. “It’s not like you can pour a bunch of oranges into a container previously used to haul hogs. At least not without giving the oranges a rather rank aftertaste.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” said the student. “The trucker would unload hog modules in California and load other containers holding citrus, computers, veggies or cheap stuff from China. Bingo, the problem of backhauls is solved.”
“Have you actually tried picking up a container with cattle in it? What about the acid rain that falls out if you get my drift? Not to mention what happens when the load shifts and hogs or feeder cattle start falling from the sky. I’m sorry but I think you should probably pick another topic.”
You can imagine my surprise years later when I put together a load of Polled Hereford heifers to be shipped to Japan. When I arrived at the airport in Oakland I found out they were to fly there in shipping containers that looked remarkably like those you see on trucks now days. A couple years after that I did a story about lambs being shipped here by the boatload from Australia that fattened on the trip over and they were handled exactly like containerized cargo. I was shocked and disgusted to discover that your average wether from Australia has been on more cruises than I have.
The young college student who called me with his BIG IDEA never phoned again but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the Australian gazillionaire sheepherder who owns the ships bringing all those lambs here in containers.