Along both sides of the blacktop of Louisiana Highway 9 just south of the town of Homer, the undulating pastures of the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station present a picturesque scene of black cattle and ponds bordered by pine forests.
For more than 70 years Hill Farm has served the producers of north Louisiana, evolving to meet the changing needs of these farmers, ranchers and foresters.
Today the station fills a singular role for the AgCenter, with 1,488 acres that feature a rolling terrain and includes the AgCenter’s largest stand of pine forests and two poultry houses.
“It’s a very unique station as far as soil types and growing conditions,” said Lee Faulk, an AgCenter livestock agent stationed at Hill Farm.
Established in 1946 by the Louisiana Legislature, the research station was created to serve the agricultural interests of the hillier land in the northwest region of the state.
Then, cotton and row crops dominated agriculture in the area, and Hill Farm devoted acreage to these crops. In the next decade the use of the hilly land around northwest Louisiana shifted. Many landowners quit farming with aid from the federal Soil Bank Program, which paid producers to retire farmland to conserve soil and scale down production of certain crops, according to a history of the station written by past researchers.
Beef cattle roam the pastures at Hill Farm, part of a beef herd that reflects the types of commercial cattle producers in north Louisiana have come to favor, Faulk said. Most of the herd is Brangus, a mix of Brahman and Angus bred to thrive in hot coastal climates.
“All of our practices, techniques and equipment are similar to what the average cattle producer utilizes,” Faulk said. “Everything is focused on how it works on an average producer’s place.”
Some of the activities taken on by the livestock agents at Hill Farm are more advanced. Faulk and Ashley K. Edwards, an assistant extension agent and the coordinator for regional animal sciences programs in the Central, Northwest and Northeast regions, teach a wide range of classes designed to increase producers’ knowledge of technical topics, including artificial insemination and pregnancy determination clinics.
“Producers are able to do it, but they are not implementing it yet,” Edwards said. “Our goal is to show them you can do this.”
In addition to teaching livestock producers, Hill Farm is home to a great deal of research into the grasses and legumes used by farmers and ranchers to feed livestock. Renowned AgCenter forage specialist Buddy Pitman has been trusted by Louisiana producers for decades.
“It is important to have an unbiased evaluation of various grasses and forages so that producers can know how to best improve their pastures,” said William Owens, resident coordinator of the research station. “Evaluations of different forage crops on the soils of northwestern Louisiana help producers know what will work best for them, and Dr. Pitman does these comparisons both at the Hill Farm and at the Red River Research Station, giving producers a comparison of a variety of soil types.”
Cattle ranchers throughout northwestern Louisiana are “high on Hill Farm Research Station and the whole AgCenter system,” said Loyd Dodson, a rancher in Red River Parish.
“They’re doing studies, things we know will help,” Dodson said. “They’re very accessible.”
Forestry has been a part of Hill Farm since the beginning. After the station’s founding in 1949, tracts of trees were planted during the ’50s. More than 600 acres are covered with trees, composing more than half the research station’s acreage.
“That is an extreme investment in that industry,” Owens said. “It’s the No. 1 agricultural industry in the state by a long way.”
Throughout the decades tracts of trees used for research have been planted and harvested, with more tracts following. They test different types of trees, both hardwoods and pines, that are bred for specific purposes.
“We’ve been able to follow multiple rotations of trees over multiple years to get the data,” Owens said. “Probably at least three foresters have come through with the same trees. It has been an unusual opportunity to follow the trees from seedlings until they were harvested.”
Foresters working at the station have collaborated with state and federal agencies to study forestry. The U.S. Forest Service is analyzing a stand of loblolly pines for drought tolerance. There also is a longleaf pine tree tract to find out how the trees fare outside of their native range farther south. One new study involves gauging whether sweetgum trees can provide the raw materials needed for paper and cardboard packaging.
“Everything we do here can apply to at least half the state and can be extrapolated to the southern portion of the state because we’re still seeing the same species of trees,” said Valerie West, the area forestry agent stationed at Hill Farm.
When William Owens came to the Hill Farm Research Station, he was a researcher studying mastitis, a disease affecting dairy cattle.
“Over the years the mastitis program has slowly diminished, as has the dairy industry in Louisiana,” Owens said.
As the dairy industry shrank in Louisiana, he changed his focus. One of the largest agricultural commodities in northwestern Louisiana is poultry, and chicken houses have taken the place of dairy barns along rural highways.
To fill the need for poultry research, Owens now oversees two chicken houses at Hill Farm where he tests equipment and procedures for poultry farmers. Owens focuses on the farmers’ needs, testing which equipment works best, running water quality tests or evaluating methods for disposal of poultry waste.
The specialists at Hill Farm have focused on serving the needs of the farmers and ranchers in the parishes that surround the station. Having a local research station that focuses on the needs of a region is important, said Dodson, the cattle rancher.
“Louisiana needs that,” Dodson said. “They need someone they can call on here.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant communications specialist and associate editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
William Owens, resident coordinator at the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station, poses before the pastures, forests and rolling hills of the station. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Since its founding in 1946, the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station has devoted hundreds of acres to forestry research. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Small pine trees grow at the edge of a pasture at the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station. Forestry research has been a focus of the station for decades. Photo by Kyle Peveto
The poultry houses at the LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station serve as demonstration houses that exhibit the best practices for poultry farmers. Photo by Kyle Peveto
The LSU AgCenter Hill Farm Research Station serves the producers of northwest Louisiana, where rolling hills and tree-lined pastures are common. Photo by Kyle Peveto