Climate-Smart Farmer in Focus - Dorothy Henderson

Climate-Smart Farmer Dorothy Henderson farms west of Esperance, WA. She says she and her neighbours are all having to manage "longer dry periods, lack of run-off rains, water deficiencies and concerns about feed and fodder on hand to tide the stock over until the next growing season".

At a glance 

Who: Dorothy Henderson

What: Rural journalist, horse breeder 

Where: I have lived on rural properties most of my life, having grown up on a farm in WA’s wheatbelt. After about 14 years of living on large farms in the Esperance area, managed by my husband for various employers, we now live on our own small 90ha property 35 km west of Esperance, in the south east of Western Australia. We lease a further 45 ha which we use to run an Australian Stock Horse stud and around 30 horses along with a small herd of Angus cattle. We grow our own hay, and for the first time this year we have harvested enough grain to feed our horses for the year: a small achievement for most but for us this has been a very exciting thing!

Can you tell us about your property? 

Our property lies in the Dalyup River catchment, which leads into the RAMSAR listed Lake Gore Wetlland system. The soil was once rich and fertile and this area was the original food bowl for Esperance, in the days before people worked out how to manage the sandplain that runs along the stunning coast. Yate bushland once hugged the creeks systems that have been devastated by the salinity that encroached as land was cleared and farmed.  

The combination of a reliable rainfall and soil that doesn’t blow away has meant that this farm has the capacity to produce and carries livestock at a high stocking rate, and in the past we have run 60-80 head comfortably, and cut hay. But we have had to do lots of work in an effort to repair damage done in the past. We have fenced creeks, planted trees and perennials, but the process of regeneration is ongoing.

What first got you thinking about climate change? 

When I was working at the Esperance Express years ago, I wrote a story about climate change: it must have been after the IPCC released one of its very first reports. At the time I think the Labor Government was in power federally, and I honestly thought that people would listen and that it was being dealt with.

Years later, I was doing some volunteer media work for Oxfam and helped them with some Rodney Dekker photography exhibitions that were touring Australia. As I worked with our children to set up the displays of Dekker’s amazing photos, I became aware of the plight of the people of Tuvalu and Kiribati. I was shocked and alarmed by the lack of compassion and action with regard to the impact rising water levels were already having on the lives of people in the Pacific. This prompted me to want to learn more about sustainable development so that I could write with an understanding of the issues that faced us, and of climate change. Fast forward to now, and I am completing a Masters in Sustainable Development through Murdoch University …and I am still shocked and alarmed by the lack of compassion and action! 

I have also been involved with the Landcare movement in our area and was the executive officer and then communications officer for Esperance Regional Forum for some time. As our local Landcare group, this organisation rolled out several projects that aimed to tackle issues including climate change, including sustainable living and food production projects.

How has climate change impacted on your farm business? 

For the last two years we have grown no hay on property and our fodder bill has been twice what it usually is. We are totally reliant on rainwater and dams on this property, due to issues with salinity. Our water supplies were at such a low level at the end of this autumn that we destocked considerably. We usually receive over 500mm of rain over the year: this year we are 200mm below average. The summers are starting earlier and finishing later. In addition to the direct impact of less rain on feed and water supplies for both the livestock and household (both for drinking and in our food producing garden), we are worrying about fires for a longer period. In terms of selling our horses; people are reluctant to buy horses when they are short on feed and water, and, unlike cows, stock horses can’t be liquidated easily. They are precious animals that are not easily “destocked”, so we have bred less with an obvious impact on our potential income with both less cows, less horses and no sheep. 

We are surrounded by farmers who are reporting the same things: longer dry periods, lack of run-off rains, water deficiencies and concerns about feed and fodder on hand to tide the stock over until the next growing season.

What are some of the climate-smart strategies you’ve been employing and how successful have they been?

We have destocked and are working to establish perennial pastures in all paddocks to tackle the issue of carbon capture and productivity all in one. Phalaris and tall wheatgrass are among the species that are now thriving while other plants are struggling in the longer dry period. We are planting millet in summer, to try and make the most of the summer storms that still sometimes come. We are investigating installation of a Desolinator desalination unit to provide water from a saline creek that flows most of the year. We are planting trees constantly in an effort to revegetate the property, especially along the creek lines, and provide a productive habitat for us, for our animals and to boost biodiversity on the property.