Drought, then flooding rain

The dramatic appeal of Big Weather can wear thin.

2012 was, to use the sporting cliché, a year of two halves for growing grass at Emerald Hill. In the first half, the summer was cool and damp, and the damp weather continued into autumn and the first part of winter. 594mm of rain fell on 68 rain-days up to 26th July[i]. The lower areas of pasture were always too wet to let us to get a truck on to spread chicken manure as we had planned.

Then, in the second half of the year, the rain stopped. There were only 3 rain-days yielding a total of 27mm between 26th July and 7th November. It started to rain again as the summer began, with 109mm in November and December. However, the weather also got hot, with temperatures frequently over 30°C from early December. Temperatures increased further in January, culminating in many days above 40°C as the spectacular ‘Dome of Heat’ developed over the middle of the continent because of the delayed arrival of the tropical monsoon.

It is an ill will that blows no good, so in mid-January I tried to turn the hot conditions to some farming advantage by booking a double load of chicken manure to spread while the going was good and calling the stock agent to see when I could buy some good Angus cows to expand and replenish the Emerald Hill breeding herd.

For us, Australia’s hottest summer on record both peaked and ended on the afternoon of Friday 18th January, when the Dome of Heat pushed one last bulge out to the east coast. The temperature at Sydney Observatory reached 45.8°C in mid-afternoon, but then met a very strong cold front travelling up the coast from the south, so that the evening was cool and very windy and there was a steady drizzle by the following morning.

IMG_0573_1

The front paddock at Emerald Hill in good times

I follow the developing narrative of Big Weather in the weekly column in The Land written by Don White of Weatherwatch. Don’s article of the week following the 18th January noted that the monsoon had finally developed in northern Australia and that increasing air moisture was spreading south bringing more normal seasonal conditions. His outlook for the first half of 2013 was that a neutral pattern was likely to remain in control, which, “combined with slightly warmer than normal sea surface temperatures has the potential for unexpected change.”[ii]

We have had 467mm of rain in 19 rain-days at Emerald Hill since 18th January. Most of this has fallen in three big ‘rain-events’.

The week after the record heat, Cyclone Oswald came down the coast of New South Wales instead of moving out to sea from Southern Queensland. 170mm fell 27th-29th January. That is a lot of rain, but the river system was quite empty after six dry months. However, we had a relatively small flood that inundated the paddocks for three days, but did no harm to roads, fences or pasture.

Three weeks later, 96mm of rain fell 22nd – 24th February. The river system was still charged after the rain in late January, so there was a very big flood, with a fast rise and fast flow that washed away fences and road surfaces.

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The front paddock of Emerald Hill on Sunday 24th February[iii] – look for the fence

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14 head of Noonee Angus, being rescued from the flood by our neighbour, Richard Gulley

Roads and bridges were passable again, if very rough, by Tuesday last week (26th February). However, most of the paddocks were still under water three days later when 86mm more rain fell on 1st – 3rd March. Emerald Hill has been cut off again since Saturday, and is likely to remain so until at least mid-week.

I got out of Emerald Hill ahead of the flood on Friday afternoon so that I could put January’s cattle-buying plan into action at the Angus breeder sale in Maitland on Saturday afternoon. I bought six good young cows (though I had to get Kristen’s advice by phone because he was marooned at the farm) but the cattle are being held at Maitland sale yard until we can bring them home. On Thursday we will make the fourth attempt to get a delivery of chicken manure. Like last year, it seems unlikely that we will be able to spread manure on the low paddocks this year, and the prolonged inundation will have drowned much of the grass.

Don White’s column of 24th January concluded with an ominous observation: “Heat stored in the world’s oceans is now near record high levels and the effects of this are unclear other than to say it will influence the weather and temperature patterns for years to come.”

Apparently, I have to accept that all this is not Big Weather, but The Weather.


[i] The rainfall figures are those collected and recorded by our neighbour, Allan Ryan, at ‘Grove Hill’ – the farm opposite our front paddock

[ii] The Land, 24/1/13, quoted by kind permission of Don White of Weatherwatch

[iii] Flood photographs reproduced by kind permission of Normie McIntosh

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New Breeding Stock for Emerald Hill

New Breeding Stock

Our quest to grow perfect beef means that I usually watch animals being carted away from Emerald Hill. It made a happy change to watch Steve bring nine newly-bought cows and their calves to our yards late last Saturday night.
I like a stable herd of breeding cows at Emerald Hill. Eleven of our current herd of 28 were born on the farm and all the rest have been on the property for at least two years. This stability makes them familiar with our paddocks and with their place in the herd and it keeps them calm when we move or yard them. However, our cows get older and there are limits to how many heifers we can retain – we only have one bull, so after a couple of years of Goddard’s service all of our heifers are now his daughters. Furthermore, every heifer retained is one less available to the meat business. The ‘sell or retain’ choice is a constant and unresolved dilemma.
Thus, we need to buy new stock from time to time, so I went to the annual store cattle sale at Maitland last Saturday. I sometimes buy at the on-farm sales of a specialist breeder. The benefit of buying at an agent’s store sale compared with an on-farm sale is that you get a wide offering of cattle as to age, breed, condition, value etc. The disadvantage is that you have much less idea about the provenance of the cattle and you would be prudent to presume that the unknown vendors have sent animals that are good enough for sale but certainly not as good as the ones that they keep for themselves.
So, caveat emptor was my guide, with 1 ½ hours to inspect the offering before 900 animals were to be sold by auction within about 2 ½ hours. This probably holds no fears for an accomplished farmer – all the other buyers looked pretty calm – but I find the whole inspection, selection and bidding process to be exhausting.

EH New Cows-00032One of our new Angus heifers with her Speckle Park cross calf

I had a checklist in mind as I went round the penned cattle for sale. First, I ruled out non-Angus lots. This took a little care because many black cows have some other bloodlines, including some elements of dairy cattle. Secondly, I had decided that I wanted ‘units’ – that is, cows with calves at foot. This is partly defensive: it shows that the cows are actually capable of bearing and rearing calves, and you can see the quality of their calves. It is also economic: you have a calf that can be weaned and sold within a few months to recoup some investment, though I couldn’t sell them under the Emerald Hill brand because they are not born on the farm. Thirdly, I wanted young cows, preferably heifers with their first calves at foot. Fourthly, of course, I wanted good cows: strong feet and legs to live out in our damp paddocks and stony hills, high udders with four functioning teats, and with no obvious signs of disease.

EH New Cows-00027New three year old Angus cow with calf

I went up and down the raised gantries, then along the laneways at ground level, looking down and squinting up, going through a silent mantra of ‘hips, back, udders, teats and feet’ then scribbling on my clipboard, but there are always traps for the unwary. One of my advisors caught up with me when I was reasonably happy with my shortlist. He looked at one of my chosen yards, and said – tactfully, I presume – “these stock agents are clever, aren’t they, the way that they always slip one rough one in a yard of good ones.”

This sent me on another round of due diligence, making sure that I had paid attention to every animal in my preferred lots. Actually, though, my range of reasonable choices narrowed down to only five or six pens of cattle.

Two of these pens were of more cattle than I really wanted. Finally, as well as the objectively useful selection criteria, I allowed myself the idiosyncrasy of my own taste. I hope to be looking at and handling these cows and their calves for many years to come. I want to be among cows that are calm in the paddocks and yards, and have the ‘look’ that I like: slightly on the tall side for Angus, but sufficiently broad at the shoulders and hips so that the overall impact of the cow on the eye is square, with a straight and level back, deep chest, and well defined muscling over hips and shoulders and well down the legs.

I eliminated a yard of cattle that had passed the test of my advisors, but which were slightly smaller than I like. Each animal in that lot had several tears in each ear, which were disfiguring and which I interpreted as evidence of repeated selling and re-labelling. This left me with just two yards that I liked enough to want to bid for. One yard was of four Angus cows between three and six years of age if I interpreted the vendor’s tagging system correctly. Six years was a little older than I wanted, but the cattle were quiet, consistent in appearance and good quality, each with an Angus calf of around five months of age.

The second yard was of five Angus cows which were very consistent and which matched well with my preferred type. The agent said that the cows were on their first calves and they certainly looked young. Their calves were also an attraction – each cow had a calf of around three months of age, apparently sired by a Speckle Park bull. Speckle Park is a specialist beef breed that was developed about 40 years ago in Canada from Shorthorn and Angus stock. I have heard good reports of Speckle Park, so these calves would be good chance to see for ourselves how Speckle Park performs.

I kept an eye on the prices achieved on the early lots: not too frightening, and I was on the rail when the auctioneer reached my picks. The bidding went reasonably well by my standards. I suspect that I may have let myself get bid up by forty dollars on the first lot, but at least I avoided topping my own bid, which happened last time I came to the yards. There was firm competition for the last sixty dollars on the Speckle Park lot, but I kept going because I was confident that those cows will fit well into our herd. I got the lot at a better price than I had feared, and my work was done 20 minutes after the start of the sale.

EH New Cows-00024New five year old Angus cow with calf

Steve had other deliveries to make, and he needed to bring my new cattle in two loads, so both loads were delivered well after dark. All the animals must have had a stressful two or three days as they were put into yards, carted, then put into yards again at the market, with the cows frequently separated from their calves. It was a very pleasant sight when I could finally open the gate and watch by the light of the rising moon as all nine cows and their calves got a drink of fresh water then settled down together to explore a paddock of fresh grass.

13th March, 2015

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Goddard – our new Angus bull

I have taken the plunge and bought a new bull.

On 16th September last year, Noonee Goddard G3 – 18 months old, 674kg of glossy black, pellet-fed adolescent masculinity, with a surface area of his rib-eye muscle of 99 cm², intra-muscular fat of 5.1 percent and a scrotal circumference of 36cm – walked calmly down the ramp from the truck and into the yards at Emerald Hill after a six hour trip from the Central West.

Noonee-Goddard

Noonee Goddard G3 on sale day

We haven’t had our own bull at Emerald Hill since we sold Harry in 2010. Since then, we have relied on the kindness of neighbours – well, on the loan of their bulls – to service our herd when necessary, but this was not a sustainable option. The bull – of course – accounts for half of the genetic component of our product, so we need to exercise a positive choice in this area if we are to achieve our goal of continually improving the quality and consistency of Emerald Hill beef.

Getting consistency is as big a challenge as the absolute quality itself, especially now that we are developing the confidence to offer Emerald Hill beef to specialist butchers. I don’t want to tour butchers’ shop with a cool-box of samples of our prime cuts – we need all those cuts for our home-delivery customers. On the other hand, I’m asking a butcher to take a leap of faith by paying well into four figures for quarter of a tonne of carcase that he can’t inspect.

I bridge this gap by travelling with a folder of photographs of carcases, especially our recent ones, to demonstrate the quality of the skinning and cutting process in the abattoir, the carcase’s fat cover and colour, the size and shape of the prime cuts in profile, and the marbling of the meat itself.

When the butcher commits to buy, I need the delivered product to be as similar as possible to the carcase in the photos – or better, of course. If the butcher likes the carcase sufficiently to re-order from us – and so far, so good – then we need to supply a body that closely resembles the previous one.

Most of those carcase and meat quality factors are genetic. The food that the animal has eaten – quantity and quality – is also important, of course, but even then, the rate at which an animal puts on muscle and fat in response to food is also genetic.

It is hard to achieve consistency in grass-fed farming, because we have denied ourselves the option of feeding pellets to achieve a desired weight and fat cover if the grass is inadequate.

We have used three bulls since we sold Harry: an Angus/Limousin cross, a Droughtmaster and a Charolais. All have produced good calves and excellent meat. The carcases have been similar at similar weights, but they have differed sufficiently in colour, shape and fat cover for me to want to choose one bull – right or wrong – so that I eliminate that source of variation.

Having decided to buy our own bull, my next decision was to go for a pure Angus. The whole topic of breed selection in a boutique beef farm is a subject for another day – French or British, a heritage breed or more mainstream, pure bred or aim for some hybrid vigour with a cross-breed?

Suffice at this stage to say that I chose a pure Angus bull to use with our herd of predominantly Angus cows because I think that this is the safest way to get a consistent improvement in Emerald Hill beef. I have started this quest to produce perfect beef too late in life to be able to risk any interesting experiments.

Angus is a major commercial beef breed in Australia and internationally. This means that every bull sale catalogue includes a sea of numbers for the estimated variation of each animal’s genes from the Angus breed average figure for over 15 variables – for example, birth weight, eye muscle area, growth rates, fat scores and milk yield.

All this information must be very useful in a Big Beef operation that is growing a defined product in quite controlled circumstances – for example, 300kg weaners for sale to feedlots or fatteners. However, it rather obscured the target in my simple mission to get one decent bull to work in my herd. Indeed, perhaps the whole international Angus herd is being developed for a model – grain-finished or feedlot – that is not right for our grass-fed product at Emerald Hill, where our cows must rear calves to a good standard across wide seasonal variations?

After a few evenings working through catalogues, I realised that it was time actually to see some bulls. Kristen came with me to one sale in the Bylong Valley, and we spent an invaluable (for me) couple of hours going through the pens looking at the 50 young bulls for sale. This, too, soon became confusing – there were so many big black animals, all with their small points of difference.

Under Kristen’s guidance, I realised that, putting genetics aside, the look that I like in my herd is made up of a straight ‘top line’ along the back, equal height at the hips and shoulders, broad across the hips, and a good stance on broad feet and fetlocks. A quiet temperament is also important. Temperament, too, seems to be an inherited characteristic and I want the Emerald Hill herd be quiet and not flighty – partly to enhance the pleasure of being among them in the paddock and yards, but also because I think that our calm environment flows directly through to the tenderness of the meat.

I was out-bid on the couple of bulls that we liked at Bylong, so I went the following week to the Noonee Angus sale at Larras Lee, north of Orange. Netta at Noonee aims to breed ‘easy-doing’ Angus for commercial herds – that is, cattle that thrive and achieve a good food-to-weight conversion ratio under a wide range of pasture conditions. I bought 10 cows from Noonee 10 years ago, and these have worked well on our land at Emerald Hill – indeed, Harry was a bull that we bred on the farm from one of those cows.

Kristen and I had identified a shortlist based on the genetic profiles, looking for a superior level of rib fat and eye-muscle area, in a balanced package of birth weight and estimated growth rates. After looking at the stance, conformation and temperaments of the Noonee bulls in the yards, I picked three potential bulls. Goodard came up at Lot 5, early in the sale, whereas the other two were at the end. I decided to bid to buy Goddard, rather than take the risk of being forced to chase the price for one of the later bulls or go home empty-handed.

Thus, with as much care as possible = and $6,000 – going into choosing him, Goddard has become the new bull for Emerald Hill beef. The first calves should arrive by July, but of course we will not know the true proof of the pudding for a couple of years.

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Emerald Hill mince: lean and green

We get a lot of favourable comments about the Emerald Hill lean mince. We cook a lot of the mince for ourselves – indeed, I’ve just enjoyed another dinner of spaghetti bolognaise. The Emerald Hill mince does seem a bit different from the store-bought equivalent, with less obvious white fat in its uncooked form, and less lumpy and with less moisture separating out as it cooks.

I invested in having an analysis performed on the last batch of grass-fed Emerald Hill lean mince in order to look into this a bit more objectively. We also did a comparative analysis on a good quality shop-bought lean mince – Premium Lean Mince bought from Peters Meats in Edgecliff. This was described to me when I bought it as coming from grain-fed Angus beef.

The samples were tested for their respective fat levels, for the composition of those fats, and for the levels of two minerals – iron and zinc. These are the results:

Component Units Emerald Hill Mince Peters Premium Lean Mince
Fat g/100g

7.3

10.1

Total Omega 3 Fatty Acids g/100g

0.1

0.1

Omega 6 Fatty Acids g/100g

0.1

0.2

Saturated Fat g/100g

3.5

5.3

Mono Unsaturated Fat g/100g

3.2

3.9

Poly Unsaturated Fat g/100g

0.2

0.3

Trans Fat g/100g

0.4

0.6

Cholesterol mg/100g

62

65

Iron mg/kg

20

18

Zinc mg/kg

53

38

I’m certainly not qualified to comment on the chemical or nutritional significance of these numbers – and I’d be really pleased to get a perspective from somebody who is.

I’ll therefore state only the obvious, which is principally that the Emerald Hill sample is indeed lower in total fat content than the comparator lean mince sample. The sub-components of the fats – notably saturated fat – are also lower, in about the same proportion, presumably as a consequence of the overall lower fat level. Secondly, the level of zinc seems strikingly higher in the Emerald Hill mince, though I do not know whether this difference is statistically or nutritionally significant.

Advocates for grass-fed rather than grain-fed meat argue[1] that grass-fed meat should have a better fat and nutritional structure than grain-fed meat. In particular, they suggest that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids should be higher in grass-fed meat because omega-3 acids are found principally in plant leaves whereas omega-6 is found in the plant seeds. On the other hand, a microbiologist with experience in meat told me that he would not expect to see a material difference based on animal diet. Presumably assertions about the health effects of omega balance are also controversial.

Looking only at the results above, the numbers for the fatty acids seem too small to be able to draw any conclusions. In any case, mince is a composite product – the total fat content can be adjusted by the butcher. Perhaps I need to save up and try the tests again on 500g each of eye fillet. However, I’ve blown this month’s testing budget on testing the chicken-litter based manure that we have been spreading to keep up the quality of the winter and spring grass – more on that in the next blog.


[1] Summarised, for example, by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Bloomsbury, 2007, pp 267-9)

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What you won’t find in an Emerald Hill sausage

All the meat in our Emerald Hill sausages is Emerald Hill grass-fed beef. The sausages are made on the premises at Narrabeen Butchery when the carcase is sectioned, with meat that comes from the carcase muscle trimmings and associated fat. There is no meat from other parts of the animal.

The sausages should be gluten-free. We specify gluten-free ingredients, and we ask the butcher to avoid cross-contamination in the mixing machinery. We don’t make the claim that the sausages are gluten-free. We would only do this if we tested samples from every run and the tests cost over $150 per sample.

However, we test for gluten every few batches. Both batches of sausage (the plain and the tomato and onion) that were made on 15th May were tested and there was no detectable level of gluten in either sample.

The sausage casings are natural rather than synthetic. The ones that we use are made from sheep intestines, but with that exception, all of the animal component of Emerald Hill sausage is ‘our beef’ – no pork or lamb, and no portions of ‘head meat, internal organs, major tendons or ligaments’.

That list is a bit confronting, but it might put some fears to rest. To be fair, the Food Standards Code requires that offal must be declared to the buyer if it is present, and I think that it is unlikely that there would be any of those bits in any ‘beef sausage’ that you buy from your local butcher.

Emerald Hill beef arrives at the butcher’s shop as traditional ‘sides’, still on the bone, but a lot of butchers nowadays buy some or all of their beef as ‘carton beef’. Carton beef has been broken into constituent parts in a factory, then boxed into industry-standard grades – rump, sirloin, topside, silverside and so on (and on). Butchers who buy in beef to make their sausages would buy packs of trimmings and the list above is of those items that are specifically to be excluded from industry standard sausage trim (Handbook of Australian Meat, 7th Edition, published by Aus-Meat Limited).

But back to our own sausages.

The Emerald Hill sausages are a crucial part of the business. Firstly, they are about a quarter of the total yield. When we did a double-sized run before Christmas last year, we had to sell and deliver 85 kilos of sausages. Secondly, everybody has their own idea of the perfect beef sausage – some like them thick, some thin, some fatty and some drier, some finely-ground, and some more coarse, some piquant, some plainer.

And we could get creative. Narrabeen Butchery makes a special effort with its own sausage range. They employ a full-time specialist, so out at the back of the shop I’m often working among the pleasant smells of fresh ingredients – basil, coriander, feta, garlic, ginger, honey, sun-dried tomato, sage and lemongrass. Guinness is spoken of but never seen.

So, faced with many possibilities, we try to please as many customers as possible by aiming for a traditional plain beef grilling sausage. That means that it has enough (grass-fed) fat to be juicy and to cook properly, but not so much that the sausages are greasy. Paprika is added for colour but no extra spice other than what is in the pre-mixed binder. The ingredients are passed through the mincer twice to achieve a relatively fine texture. The resulting mix is then squeezed out at a diameter that is somewhere between thick and thin, and twisted into lengths somewhere between long and short.

There you have the theory and practice of our sausage and we hope that the result pleases as many people as possible in your household. We always like to get comments, and we would also be pleased to try to meet any special requests. For example, we sometimes make a batch of sausages with no added salt in the preservative.

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Are our animals slaughtered humanely?

The Emerald Hill mission is to supply you with the best grass-fed beef that we can produce, from animals that we have treated as humanely as we can.

It is easy to be sure that we treat the animals humanely around the farm. Together with Kristen, who manages the cattle, we make all the choices and do all the work. However, there is an important step between the farm and the meat that we deliver to you.

The welfare benefits of avoiding distress for the animals speak for themselves, but taking proper care of the animal during transport and slaughter also means better meat. Stress causes adrenalin, leading to a raised heart rate and dehydration. This all affects the muscle tissue, causing tough carcases – known as ‘dark-cutters’.

The ways to limit stress on the animals – and these are consistent with organic guidelines – are to keep the transport stage short and direct, to avoid mixing the animals into unfamiliar groups, to allow them time to settle down after arriving at the abattoir, and to keep stock movements calm – not, for example, using dogs or electric prods. The animals should be able to see other stock when they are in the yards, but they must never see other animals being slaughtered.

We use the nearest abattoir, which is about an hour’s drive away. Kristen takes them on his truck, aiming to be at the abattoir by 7 am so that the animals have settled down ready for slaughter that day. The process is in the hands of the abattoir after the animals are unloaded. I decided after the recent shocking televised scenes of some animal slaughtering that I should visit our abattoir to see their slaughter process for myself.

I had expected the abattoir to be like a cattle sale yard, except worse because of the outcome of the day’s work – known to me, if not, I hoped, to the animals. I don’t usually like sale yards – a lot of shouting and prodding, and bellowing from confused cattle. However, the yards of the abattoir when I arrived reminded me more of milking time at the small dairy that used to be opposite Emerald Hill.

The abattoir had been working for about twenty minutes, and I could see from the closed-circuit relay in the office reception area that carcases were being processed inside the plant. However, the stock holding pens outside the office window didn’t look like the supply line for an industrial facility. Cattle were sitting – apparently quite calmly – in small groups in several pens.

After I had put on overalls and a hairnet, I walked past the holding yards to the ‘knock box’, where the animals are actually slaughtered. The yards still seemed calm – as though the plant was barely working. I phoned back the following day to check that I had indeed been watching the facility working at full capacity. Apparently I had – about 100 cattle as well as some sheep had been slaughtered the previous day, which is the usual day’s work.

Only two people were working in the yards – one yardman, moving the stock, and one man doing the slaughter itself. After being unloaded, the cattle are moved in their groups between pens a few times, in an arc that brings them eventually to a yard with a concrete floor where they are washed. After being washed, the group is moved into a curved race that ends in a solid galvanised steel door.

I stood next to the slaughter man on a platform above the steel door. Four steers were standing in a loose line in the race as I arrived, and a fifth steer was just being moved through the door into the empty steel slaughter box. The yardman can work from the race, but while I was there, the slaughter man was able to manage the cattle in the race by working from above, guiding the animals with a stick.

The slaughter man reached down into the slaughter box with a small device in his hand. I expected that he was going to read the steer’s ear tag with an electronic reader, but suddenly the animal fell down – it had been killed with a spring-loaded, retractable bolt to the cerebral cortex. I saw no sign of distress either in the steer during slaughter, or in the four animals still in the race. I watched the body for about two minutes after slaughter and I saw no movement in its eyes, mouth or limbs.

The inside of the plant cannot be seen from the yards or the slaughter box. After the animal has been slaughtered, the box is tipped on its side which delivers the body down a slide into the plant, ready for processing.

I can only speak for the abattoir that we use, and only on the day when I was there. No doubt the process does not always work as smoothly as it did when I was there, but I was reassured by what I saw that the abattoir to which we send our Emerald Hill stock does its job with the care that we want. As far as I could see, the animals are slaughtered with no pain, and with no apprehension of what is to happen.

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