Cotton growing is taking off in the Northern Territory and this budding industry has the backing of the latest release John Deere CP770 Cotton pickers to bring in the valuable haul
The view from Laura Keeley’s CP770 cotton picker, includes long runs across the Top End’s Tipperary Group of Station’s current crop, and it gives the 20-year-old harvester operator a feeling of immense optimism about the future of the cotton industry.
While it’s only Laura’s second season as a full-time harvester operator, she is the second generation of Brookstead Farming, a multistate agriculture contracting business, that harvests 20,000ha of cotton each year as well as 15,000ha of grain.
Overall, Brookstead Farming is a large-scale and diverse farming operation as apart from contracting, the venture also picks 1300ha of its own cotton at its Darling Downs farm near Pittsworth Qld and at Kununurra in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, while also cutting 800ha of cane at Proserpine in North Queensland.
Equipping operators with efficient cotton harvesting capabilities is at the core of Brookstead Farming’s operations and Laura is in the cab of just one of the five John deere CP770 pickers in the Brookstead stable.
These models were only launched by John Deere in 2021 and have been able to bring more power and precision to the Brookstead Farming operating as they have proven after being put into work for the first time this season.
See the launch story in AFDJ on this link John Deere CP770 cotton picker launch.
“The CP770’s can travel at faster speeds, particularly up here in the Territory where there are lighter crops and longer runs,” Laura said.
“They are moving much faster and operating very smoothly. They have been working exceptionally well for us,” Laura added.
The power for the picker is delivered by John Deere’s bolstered 13.6-litre PowerTech™ engine with 408kW (555hp) that is able to run at a 32.2kph transport speed.
The John Deere JD14P 13.6-litre engine can work for 12 hours without stopping for fuel and runs at 1900rpm during harvest with a fuel efficiency saving of up to 20% while it is able to propel the harvester forward at 7.4kph.
In addition to a faster working speed than previous models, the CP770 also has an increased module size, allowing it to pick and process more hectares per hour.
Russell Keeley, the owner of Brookstead Farming and who happens to be Laura’s father, noted the larger round module builders have also allowed the expansion of the bale by more than 50mm in diameter and increased module density by up to 5%.
Russell sees this as part of the growing productivity and profitability he can offer to his cotton growing clients.
“We estimate the CP770’s have put about eight per cent more weight into each module,” Russell said.
“The cotton modules here are being shifted 3000km to a gin in Dalby Qld, so if we can pick up that eight per cent, it’s an eight per cent saving on wrap, and an eight per cent saving on freight, which is all vital to the farm profit,” Russell explained.
Brookstead Farming has three of its CP770’s harvesting working across the Tipperary Group of Stations, spearheading the iconic cattle business’s emerging cotton operation that only completed its first commercial trial in 2019.
Watching the modules roll out efficiently from the comfortable cab, and the vista of the Northern Territory’s budding cotton industry reaching another harvest milestone, fills Laura with a great sense of pride when she’s behind the wheel of her CP770.
“It’s always rewarding when you can look back across the paddock and see what you have completed,” Laura said.
“The cotton crop here is excellent. I think there will be a long future for cotton in the Northern Territory,” Laura added.
Cotton industry future view
Russell Keeley firmly believes his daughter is the future of his business. After growing the contracting and farming venture for the past 20 years he sees himself moving aside to make way for the next generation to step up in coming years.
The business has enjoyed steady growth from the time in 2001 when it purchased 4300ha on the Darling Downs Qld, to today encompassing the cotton farm at Kununurra WA that leverages off the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and the 3000ha cane farm in Proserpine Qld, that has 800ha of land under cane production and the balance used for grazing cattle.
Russell said the geographic and commodity diversification was a drought mitigation strategy to ensure his 17 permanent staff were guaranteed work.
“We only added the cane business in 2020, Russell said, “It was just before COVID hit.
“We chased opportunities in Kununurra WA and Proserpine Qld in the drought years as we wanted to retain our workers so we had to go somewhere else and do something different or the business wouldn’t have been sustainable.
“Kununurra and Proserpine are droughtproof areas, that has provided the diversification we needed,” Russell added.
With Laura coming into the fold, and also currently studying an agribusiness degree remotely through the University of New England in between harvesting shifts, Russell is confident in the long-term viability of Brookstead Farming.
Partnering with Deere
John Deere equipment has been there since the beginning, when Russell purchased his first picker in 1995, a 9965 model.
Almost 30 years later, his stable of machinery includes five CP690’s, four S670 combines, a CH570 cane harvester and a powerful fleet of more than 20 tractors, on top of the five CP770’s that had a seamless induction to the fleet.
“The machines arrived direct from the US and our local John Deere dealership, RDO Equipment, went above and beyond to ensure they would be up and running for this season,” Russell outlined.
“Their technicians worked weekends and throughout Easter so we could have the pickers in the paddock – they did an exceptional job.
“For a business like ours, backup support and a constant supply of parts is fundamental. On average it costs us about $40,000 in transport costs to get a machine up here to the Territory and home again, so we expect optimal performance from our equipment.
“RDO sent up a container full of parts for us as well, and they have one of their young mechanics working up here, who is on call if we ever need support.”
The Brookstead Farming contracting team and equipment will soon be on the move again, shifting to Kununurra WA to complete another busy harvest.
Laura said the long picking season had been made enjoyable given the cab of the CP770 has increased 30% in size, and has superb operator comfort that was proving to reduce operator fatigue.
“When you are sitting in the cab for 10-hour shifts it becomes very important you are comfortable, and have room to stretch out and move around,” Laura added from experience.
Rising to Cotton industry challenges
While Russell described the pick in the Northern Territory as being extremely smooth, he said Queensland’s southern harvest had been at the opposite end of the spectrum.
“The southern pick has been testing for every contractor and every grower as it hasn’t stopped raining the whole season,” he pointed out.
“Every time it dries out I have people from Hay NSW to Goondiwindi Qld calling as they need a picker.”
Russell said the challenging nature of the season had made machine performance and reliability even more paramount, as he credits his straightforward and honest approach as being key in retaining Brookstead Farming’s customer base.
“We never want to let our customers down, so if we promise to deliver we always ensure we do,” Russell reinterated.
John Deere will be attending the 2022 Cotton Conference from 16 to 18 August on the Gold Coast, where a current model CP770 Cotton Picker will be on display.
John Deere will also be showcase an ExactEmerge™ planter row unit, 8RX Tractor and See & Spray™ Select Technology at the Cotton Conference as well.