THE Keeley family’s Brookstead Farming operation is these days a multistate enterprise contracting across 20,000 hectares of cotton per year and harvesting 15,000ha of grain.
On its own farms, it picks 1300ha of cotton on Queensland’s Darling Downs and at Kununurra in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, and cuts cane in Proserpine, North Queensland.
Efficient cotton-harvesting capabilities are at the core of Brookstead Farming’s operations, and it bought five CP770 pickers, models launched by John Deere in 2021, in time for this season.
Three are currently in use the Tipperary Group of Stations, the iconic Northern Territory cattle business which first trialled cotton commercially in 2019, and Laura Keeley is one of the drivers.
“The CP770s can travel at faster speeds, particularly up here in the Territory where there are lighter crops and longer runs,” Ms Keeley said.
Increased speed comes from John Deere’s bolstered 13.6-litre PowerTech engine, which can increase fuel efficiency by up to 20 per cent, and travel at up to 7.4 kilometres per hour.
The picker also has an increased module size, allowing it to pick more hectares per hour.
Brookstead Farming principal and Laura’s father Russell Keeley said the larger round-module builders had expanded bale diameter by more than 5 centimetres, and increased module density by up to 5pc.
“We estimate the CP770s have put about 8pc more weight into each module,” Mr Keeley said.
“The cotton modules here are being shifted 3000km to a gin in Dalby, so if we can pick up that 8pc, it’s an 8pc saving on wrap, and an 8pc saving on freight, which is all vital to the farmer.”
Brookstead Farming started in 2001 with the purchase of 4300ha on the Darling Downs.
It now includes the Kununurra farm which accesses water from the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and a 3000ha farm in Proserpine, which has 800ha of land under sugarcane and runs cattle on the balance.
Mr Keeley said the geographic and commodity diversification was a drought mitigation strategy to ensure his 17 permanent staff had guaranteed work.
“We only added the cane business in 2020,” Mr Keeley said.
“It was just before COVID hit.
“We chased opportunities in Kununurra and Proserpine 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 drought-proof areas, which has provided the diversification we needed.”
In between harvesting shifts, Ms Keeley is doing a University of New England agribusiness degree remotely, and Mr Keeley believes his daughter is the future of his business.
After growing the contracting and farming venture during the past 20 years he sees himself moving aside to make way for the next generation to step up in coming years.
Mr Keeley said while picking in the NT has gone smoothly, the New South Wales and southern Queensland season has been the opposite.
“The southern pick has been testing for every contractor and every farmer as it hasn’t stopped raining the whole season.”
“Every time it dries out, I have people from Hay to Goondiwindi calling as they need a picker.”
Mr Keeley said the challenging eastern-states season has made machine performance and reliability even more important.
“We never want to let our customers down, so if we promise to deliver we always ensure we do,” he said.
Brookstead Farming’s John Deere fleet includes five CP690 pickers, four S670 combines, a CH570 cane harvester and more than 20 tractors, as well as the five new CP770s.
“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.”
“Their technicians worked weekends and throughout Easter so we could have the pickers in the field – 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 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 move to Kununurra to round out the 2022 cotton harvest.
Ms Keeley said the larger cab size of CP770, up 30pc on its predecessor, and greater comfort have been welcome in this long picking season in helping 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,” she said.
Source: John Deere