The USDA awarded $9.5 million to 11 collaborative, multistate projects to “enhance the competitiveness of U.S. specialty crops.” The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is a collaborator on one of the projects.

The university, in partnership, with the University of California at Davis; University of Minnesota; The Organic Center in Washington, D.C.; and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, were collectively awarded a nearly $1 million grant to “investigate the benefits of livestock integration through cover-crop grazing on bacterial population dynamics, food safety, and soil and environmental health,” said Dr. Fawzy Hashem, a research associate professor in the university’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences.

“Many growers and scientists consider livestock grazing with winter cover crop management in fresh produce or other agronomically important crop operations as a good approach to enhance soil health and benefit the environment by increasing carbon inputs,” said Hashem, the project’s co-principal director overall and the principal director in the Mid-Atlantic region. “It also can be helpful in improving nutrient cycling, reducing dependence on external inputs, improving soil health and diversifying profit streams.”

The practice, however, raises food safety concerns for the crops that follow the grazing. This, Hashem said, is where the study steps in to fill the need for “research examining food pathogen persistence, survival in soil and transfer to vegetable crops.”

Hashem and fellow researchers will graze sheep in fields with cover crops prior to planting spinach and cucumber. The team will measure changes in soil health indicators over two years of grazed cover crop-vegetable production in Maryland, California and Minnesota and assess benefits and potential trade-offs of vegetable cash crop productivity. Results will be compared to fields planted in tilled cover crops and a fallow field.

Maryland’s research team includes Hashem along with Salina Parveen, professor of the UMES Food Science and Technology Program; E. Nelson Escobar, small ruminant Extension specialist and UMES interim associate administrator for Extension; and Patricia Millner of the USDA-ARS in Beltsville. The grant is titled, “Evaluating the Food Safety Impacts of Cover-Crop Grazing in Fresh Produce Systems to Improve Cover Crop Adoption, Crop-Livestock Integration, and Soil Health.” UMES’ award as part of the project is $310,000.