While touring a 550 acre forest on the outskirts of Starkville, Miss., it’s surprising, at intersections of the lanes that traverse the woods, to see neat metal signposts bearing the names of streets on the Mississippi State University campus just 10 miles away.
But one sign, Perry Cafeteria — however out of place it may seem — is somewhat apropos, because within the forest lies a buffet of vegetation, both natural and planted, to support an abundance of wildlife: deer, turkey, quail, and song birds.
“It’s a wildlife paradise,” says Jeff Little, director of development for the Mississippi State University Foundation College of Forest Resources and Bulldog Forest, in describing the “It’s a living laboratory that showcases proper land management for both timber and wildlife habitat.”
The forest is named for the family of the late Dr. William Baker Andrews, who was an agronomy professor at the university. His son, Lester Andrews, an MSU chemical engineering graduate and a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, donated the property to provide research and teaching opportunities for MSU’s forestry and wildlife management programs.
The senior Andrews bought the property in 1979 and cleared it to farm soybeans. In the winter of 1989, he and his son planted the property in loblolly pine.
The Bulldog Forest program was created by the MSU Foundation 10 years ago, says Jeff Little, to accept donations of land to be managed by the university as part of its permanent portfolio to support teaching and research, to generate income for scholarships, professorships, endowed chairs, and building programs.
“The foundation started the program with roughly 12,000 acres, and in less than a decade we’ve received outright gifts and bequests that bring the total to over 30,000 acres,” he says. “We have property all over Mississippi, as well as some in other states. In any given year, we get donations of 2,000 to 6,000 acres. Most is in pine timber, although we do receive some agricultural properties. The late Dan McGeary of Marina Del Rey, Calif., recently donated Sidon Plantation, a 2,700 acre farm in the Delta.
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“The Andrews Bulldog Forest has value beyond the high quality timber that can be harvested — it also has tremendous potential for research, teaching, and long-term forestry/wildlife demonstration programs, all within a short drive from the campus. It’s a phenomenal outdoor classroom, and students are here constantly. Plans call for construction of a pavilion for meetings, a parking area, and restrooms.”
The property contains a stream edged by hardwood trees, an area that will remain untouched as a streamside management zone. As this stand matures, it will be used to demonstrate how hardwood trees can be managed both for profit and wildlife habitat.
A diversity of wildlife species
“MSU’s forestry and wildlife management programs are among the best in North America,” Little says, “in terms of having properties for long term management, research, teaching, and demonstration of best management practices. We have a diversity of species here that affords us the opportunity to train the next generation of both forestry and wildlife professionals.
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“There is some beautiful pine timber that has been thinned twice, once before we got the property, then again last year. It’s intersected by broad lanes, 50 yards wide and 1,300 yards long, to allow easy access for timber harvest. Trees that will produce additional food — persimmons, chestnuts, and Shumard oaks — have been planted along the lane borders, along with food plot forages for deer and turkey. Mossy Oak, the outdoors company, has given us trees from their Mossy Oak Nativ Nursery at nearby West Point. During the fall, cool season forages will be planted for deer.”
The pine forest is currently at the age and stage of growth to provide an opportunity to thin the various areas to different levels and demonstrate how forests can be managed to address landowner objectives, says Andy Ezell, head of the MSU Department of Forestry.
There are three different basal densities of pine forest, he notes: 40 , 60 , and 80 square feet per acre. “We aren’t using any burning in the timber production areas,” he says, but elsewhere controlled burning and other management techniques aim for optimum production of natural forages and cover for wildlife.
The first area is thinned to 80 square feet per acre and will prioritize pine production for revenue generation and associated wildlife habitat values, Ezell says. The second area will emphasize deer and turkey habitat, with trees thinned to a basal area of 60 square feet per acre. The third area will have the lowest basal area, around 40 square feet per acre, to encourage the growth of grasses and broadleaf plants for better quail habitat.
In addition to thinning, MSU experts will employ a variety of land management strategies, including prescribed fire, disking, mid-rotation brush control, and a combination of fire and herbicides. There will be a control area that receives no treatments in order to provide a comparison with the managed areas.
Land management strategies
“One of the great features of this property is that we will be able to look at the volume and value of production on a per-acre basis to determine the differences between the different thinning and management regimes,” Ezell says. “Obviously, the revenue-generating forest will provide more income. But, the demonstration forest will give us an opportunity to show landowners how different tree spacings can impact wildlife management and revenue.”
Wildlife Biologist and Associate Extension Professor Bronson Strickland says the forest will also include demonstrations of different management strategies for enhancing deer, turkey, and quail habitat, and data to quantify the economic tradeoffs of each strategy.
“There are already wide buffers, or corridors, surrounding the property,” he says. “Those will be ideal for food plots for white tail deer and turkeys. Prescribed burning will encourage native plants to grow, creating more sources of food and cover for deer, turkeys, and quail.”
As the forest reaches rotation age, researchers will replant at different times to demonstrate the different stages of forest and wildlife management.
To this point, Jeff Little says, no control measures have been carried out for predators such as coyotes, raccoons, etc., “there’s really no need for predator control because the habitat is so good. Our habitat management is providing plenty of cover for deer, turkey, and quail.” Game cameras mounted on posts throughout the area help specialists gain added insight into the kinds of wildlife in the area, and their movement patterns and feeding habits.
In addition to the benefits accruing to the university from the Bulldog Forest, Little says, landowners can come and see firsthand how various management programs could work on their own property.
“Costs of the more intensive management programs could be offset with income generated from hunting leases or through a higher price for more attractive land should they decide to sell,” Bronson Strickland says. Among the studies now under way on the forest property are no-till plantings of soybeans, both conventional and forage varieties.
“As farmers can attest, deer like to eat soybeans,” says Glover Triplett, MSU research professor of plant and soil sciences and a pioneer in development of no-till agriculture in the U.S.
Triplett has a personal interest in the Bulldog Forest program; he and his late wife, Imogene, have made significant donations of land to MSU, as well as gifts for endowed chairs in agriculture and horticulture, and to support scholarships.
He also remembers Dr. Andrews: “He was an agronomy professor when I was a student at MSU. He was instrumental in developing an applicator system for anhydrous ammonia, a major accomplishment in agriculture.”
More total plant yield
Forage soybeans provide a much larger total plant yield than Group IV-V conventional varieties that mature in September, Triplett says. “The forage soybeans in the plots are the Game Keeper variety developed by Eagle Seed. They continue growing into October and produce forage that is a highly desirable deer food — deer really like them.
“All were planted no-till by Dan Reynolds, professor of plant and soil sciences. We planted both forage beans and standard crop varieties to see how each would perform, and if the deer would show any preference. Some soybean plots are enclosed with solar-powered electric fence to keep deer out until the soybeans are established and can tolerate the intense feeding pressure by deer. Many of the soybeans not fenced have already been nipped to ground level.
“Deer will eat both the conventional and the forage varieties, with no preference,” Triplett says. “The difference lies in how much biomass the forage beans will provide as compared to the conventional beans.” He smiles: “The plots also include some Roundup Ready soybean varieties — but I’ve never heard the first deer complain about eating GMOs.”
No-till planting also minimizes erosion and the mulch cover reduces runoff and retains soil moisture, he says.
Forage soybeans originated in Japan and Korea, Triplett says, and were planted on rice field berms. “They were more tolerant of wet feet in the monsoon rains, and were an important source of protein to supplement the people’s primarily rice diet. They’re also a very good feed for cows, a highly digestible source of protein.”
For high yielding soybeans, soil testing is important, says Ernie Flint, regional Extension specialist at the Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center, Kosciusko. “A lot of forest soils are low pH and deficient in key nutrients. In these plots, you can see a stark contrast between areas that were soil tested, limed, and fertilized, and those that weren’t.
“A lot of landowners have learned that you can’t just disk up areas in a forest and plant wildlife food plots — you’ve got to have adequate fertility to get the best results.”
The Andrews Bulldog Forest management program is still in its infancy, says Jeff Little. “I can’t wait to see it after three or four years of proper management. It has a world of potential for teaching and research, and to be a showplace for how MSU manages its donated properties and how students will benefit through enhanced educational opportunities and scholarships.”