Winter cover crops have demonstrated benefits for growers and the environment: enhanced soil fertility, structure, water infiltration and storage, and reduced nitrate leaching. Nonetheless, challenges in expanding cover crop use remain due to concerns over cover crop water use and nutrient immobilization, which could increase deficiencies and increase input costs of the following crop. Many growers consider livestock grazing of cover-cropped fields in fresh produce operations as a way to enhance soil health and environmental benefits by increasing carbon inputs and nutrient cycling. However, recent concerns about microbial food safety are limiting expansion of this practice because livestock grazing may introduce fecal-borne foodborne pathogens into soil with a potential for transfer to harvested produce that will be consumed raw or minimally processed by consumers. We aim to evaluate the food safety impacts of sheep grazing cover crops, compared to tilled termination of cover crops (no livestock integration) and winter fallow, before spinach and cucumber.

This project will:

  • Determine food pathogen persistence/survival in soil and transfer to vegetable crops, and
  • Determine the relationship between soil health properties, environmental factors and pathogen survival in grazed cover crop-vegetable production in three states.

We will measure changes in soil health indicators over two years of grazed cover crop-vegetable production, and assess benefits and potential tradeoffs of vegetable cash crop productivity. Benefits of grazing and food safety impacts will be communicated via in-field demonstration and online tools, outreach events, conference presentations, and publications; targeted to growers, policymakers, and consumers.