Chillin’ with the Meck Bros… How two brothers are building their dairy business in volatile times.

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By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine August 22, 2012

Zach and Jeremy lost their father last year just a couple months before this story was published. He would have been proud to read it, and they credit their father with giving them the tools to become first-generation dairymen with their own farm today. Their dad bought them a few project animals for 4-H and FFA and taught them to work hard on the family’s crop and poultry farm where the boys were raised. Here is their story of building a dairy business in volatile times.

WOMELSDORF, Pa. — It was just shy of 100 degrees outside in the shade, but the cows in the barn didn’t mind. Standing in the 170-cow freestall barn at Meck Bros. Dairy near here, was actually comfortable on a visit during the August heat wave.

Despite the extreme temperatures that summer, the Meck brothers say their cows have done better than in previous summers. (Read more about their unique cooling system at the end of this story.)

The Meck Brothers have been farming in Berks County, Pa. since 2008 when they purchased a preserved farm and spent the past four years renovating it. They were attracted to this farm when it came up for sale in 2007 because much of the farmland around it is also preserved.

But their story really begins in Reinholds, Lancaster County, where they grew up on a crop and poultry farm operated by their parents Ronald and Joyce Meck until their father passed away this past spring. Today, they are cropping 340 acres at their own Berks County farm and the 400 acres in Lancaster County that belong to their family.

Why dairy? Zach and Jeremy started their dairy business on their own in a rather unconventional way, but they are quick to point out the impact of their father’s example, and the start he gave them when he bought their first 4-H starter animals.

“We were drawn to cattle in 4-H because of being able to grow the crops to feed the cows and being able to grow our own youngstock,” Jeremy explains.

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In their late father’s poultry business, the pullets were raised off the farm and brought to the farm as layers. “We had a lot of land base for the poultry, so we started grazing our cattle there and growing feed to manage the manure nutrients from the poultry,” Zach notes.

They had been building their own dairy herd on rented farms for several years. They started out milking a small herd of 12 cows for the purpose of feeding veal calves they would buy from area dairy farms and auctions.

“During those years, we learned an awful lot about calf care and homeopathic remedies,” the brothers say with a smile as they mention the stinging nettles herbal tea they found helps young calves with scours.

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Today, they raise all their own youngstock on area pastures, and are preparing to relocate them to one rented facility nearby. “That will cut down a lot on our run around time,” the brothers relate.

In 2007, they learned of this Berks County preserved farm going up for sale. They bought it and tore down the existing dairy barn, working with Franklin Builders to replace it with a small freestall barn. Zach and Jeremy built the parlor themselves by putting together two used milking systems and buying new stalls from the former Brandt’s Supply. And they did the stonework on the outside with the help of Kurtzcrete.

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The manure pit and sand settling lane were also installed in stages with the help of a friend (Mark Landis), who works in excavating. They engineered a two-stage flush system for the sand-bedded freestall barn, and put in a sand settling lane that has a third “speed bump” for catching sand before the slurry goes into the pit. A second pit is available for future expansion.

The barn flushes from the center to the end while the cows are in the holding area for milking. Sand is pulled from the sand settling lane and reclaimed for reuse as bedding. The brothers estimate they recycle most all of their sand, and buy two loads of fresh sand a year in the winter.

The Meck Bros. Dairy herd has grown slowly. Before buying the Berks County farm, Zach and Jeremy grew the herd from 12 to 40 to 60 to 120 cows on a rented farm. They were intent on keeping their business as manageable as possible.

“We ran the numbers and realized we would have had to go to 600 cows to afford building everything all new,” Zach affirms. “So we would have needed more land base than what is on this farm. So, we built for 170 cows in this phase.”

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They moved into the renovated facilities in 2008 with 120 milking cows, mainly Holsteins, including a few Red and Whites and Brown Swiss. (And the spring 2013 addition of those cute li’l Jerseys.) With high cattle prices that first year in business, they populated the barn by purchasing an economically priced crossbred grazing herd out of West Virginia to get their numbers up to 170.

“Those cows aren’t fancy but they do okay, and we are improving the herd as we breed them and bring in replacements,” Jeremy notes.

Moving the herd to the Berks County farm in 2008 was a welcome relief after the brothers had spent months milking and switching cows at the rented farm in Ephrata at the same time they were working on the new farm and facilities in Womelsdorf.

“We would work down there and then come up here and work some more,” Jeremy reflects. “We worked ahead to get crops in here to have feed here before we moved the cattle.”

Four years later, the brothers have come through some of the worst years in the dairy business. Looking at 2012-13, they have a corn silage crop that looks decent, and they had a terrific harvest of triticale forage this spring, along with hay and haylage. But the coming year will be difficult for them as for all dairy farmers with a moderate milk price trying to cover soaring input costs.

Zach does the nutrition work here, having previously worked for a nutritionist. They feed a high forage ration with 55 pounds of corn silage and 15 to 20 of haylage and five pound of triticale silage. The ration includes less than 12 pounds of total grain per day.  They grow the forages and some of the corn, and buy soybean meal and corn distillers, wheat midds and minerals.

“It’s basically a 65% forage diet,” he says. “We double crop a triticale/Italian rye mix that we harvest before planting the corn. We got six to eight tons per acre with excellent protein this spring, and will do that again this fall for next spring.”

For corn silage, they plant Pioneer hybrids, but keep an open mind and check out the trials. “We planted 30 to 40 acres in BMR to fill one bunk as a summer feed for high digestibility,” Zach explains. “The rest is planted to a mixture to keep our seed costs down.”

Today, the brothers farm over 700 acres and milk 170 cows. The herd produces 75 to 80 pounds of milk per cow per day, with somatic cell counts around 200,000. They share responsibilities on the farm, with Jeremy taking care of the breeding, herd health and the finances, while Zach leans more toward the facilities and crops.

They sit down once a month and go over everything together and talk daily as they go about the chores on the farm.

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“We started small and just worked and worked,” Jeremy relates. “We could not have done it without the foundation laid by our Dad. He bought us our first animals and lent us the barn to do it, and then he stepped away and let us do it.”

“It has been an adventure,” says Zach, who recently married Suzanne (Perdue). She brought her dairy roots in Maryland to Berks County, Pa.

Jeremy, still single, continues to renovate the old farm house near the milking parlor while living in the house across the road on the other part of the farm. He acknowledges that dairy is a family lifestyle and that being single and tied to the farm has its drawbacks.

“That’s why we both do everything here,” Zach adds. “We both know each other’s jobs so either one of us can take time off. You need to do that.”

With 15 years under their belts dairying since they were teenagers, the adventure for these brothers continues as there is always more work to be done and plans to be made.

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As members of the Land O’Lakes cooperative, Zach has been active as a delegate for a few years. He also served previously as a member of the Dairy Policy Action Coalition (DPAC) board and the Berks/Lebanon County Dairy Farmers Voice.

“It’s time to get the younger generation involved in the leadership of their cooperative,” Zach affirms. “Our futures are at stake in the outcome of the decisions that are made.

“There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, when you get half or three-quarters of a milk check — whether you are buying feed or considering the value of the crops going in the cows — dairying has to be sustainable. Where am I at the end of the day in terms of gross profit, that’s the relevant question,” he adds.

If producers here have to reduce production under the proposed dairy market stabilization program, Zach believes it would be a hardship for young and beginning farmers like he and Jeremy. “If we make 80 pounds and are paid for 70, but have higher taxes and a higher basis on our corn and soybeans and a smaller land base, how do we make that work?”

He points to the opportunity in the region fueled by the growth of the yogurt industry and other outlets for milk and consumers along the eastern seaboard.

“Why aren’t we focusing on the mechanics of the market?” he asks. “That should be our focus. We should be looking out for our fellow dairy farmers around us… Large or small, we’re all important. We have to focus on creating opportunities and getting the mechanics of the market right.”

Their Unique Cooling System  – www.cowkuhlerz.com

“We love this system,” brothers Zachary and Jeremy Meck agreed as they pointed out the elements of German cooling technology they have trialed in their freestall barn this summer. “It is simple, cost-effective, low-maintenance, and it does a great job of cooling with minimal water use.”

Instead of evaporative cooling by soaking the cow, these intermittent misters are placed in front of the circulation fans to cool the air.

Jeremy points out the conduit are kept high up in the trusses, and the nozzles drop down in front of the fans. This keeps the system out of reach of the cows and equipment so it doesn’t get bumped or broken. It’s also easy to put together and maintain, he says. “It’s a push together system.”

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“Dan McFarland wanted us to try this for Hershey Ag before they start using them in dairy, hog, and poultry barns,” Zach explains. “We like the fact that it produces a light cooling mist to cool the air without getting the cows, feed, bedding, and concrete wet.”

“We put one in the milking parlor, too, for the employees, and they love it,” Zach adds. “It’s just like air conditioning.”

Despite the extreme temperatures this summer, the Meck brothers say their cows have done better than in previous summers. “We have seen heats in our cattle that we would not have seen before, and production did not drop off nearly as hard,” Zach explains. “The cows are up eating. Normally we would have high refusal rates in the summer, but no refusals this year. Dry matter intake has been steady.”

Trialing the Aroto-Asi cooler is just one example of how these two brothers continually look for simple and cost-effective solutions to manage their dairy farm.

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Zach (left) and Jeremy Meck love the new cooling system they’ve been trialing this summer in the 170-cow freestall barn at their Berks County, Pa. dairy farm. They’ve been dairying 15 years since they were teenagers and started out with 12 cows on their parents’ crop and poultry farm in Lancaster County.

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This is a long view of the conduit up in the rafters that brings water to the Arato-Asi cooler nozzles parked in front of each fan. This intermittent mist in front of the fans cools the air without getting the cows, feed, bedding, or concrete wet.

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 The thermostatically controlled mist is barely visible (60 seconds on and 60 seconds off), but its cooling effect to the air in the barn and milking parlor is clearly felt by humans and animals, alike. The system uses very little water.

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Zach (left) and Jeremy Meck own and operate Meck Bros. Dairy, milking 170 cows and farming 700 total acres in two counties with the help of three part-time employees at the dairy in Berks County where they bought and renovated a farm in 2008.

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Jeremy (left) and Zach Meck recently completed the stonework, themselves, with the help of Kurtzcrete, on the milking parlor to match the existing bank barn and farmhouse. 

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Big message. Big impression. Ponderovey Dairy is real farm-city deal.

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 By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine feature

GLENDALE, Ariz. —  It’s been said that, “When you want something done, give it to a busy person.” And if that person is curious and likes to tinker, then so much the better.

Whoever coined the phrase must have met Paul Rovey.

The Watusi cattle horns gracing his office door are draped with dozens of lanyards holding meeting nametags as evidence of his participation on many boards, including chairmanship of Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI) for the past 11 years and service as president of United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA).

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At home on the farm, however, the conversation turns to the cattle at Ponderovey Dairy, which is located within the city limits of Glendale, Arizona, just three miles from Cardinal Stadium. Paul loves cattle and he takes every opportunity to be a good neighbor, to strengthen opportunities for future generations, and to tell the story of dairy and agriculture in ways that make a lasting impact on the public. His prized herd of Watusi cattle help him do that.

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An impromptu visit in November started off touring the dairy with administrative manager David Merdick.

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I quickly saw why Paul is an avid alumna of the livestock judging team at the University of Arizona. While a truck parked by the office trailer bore the license plate “UDR K OS”, the assortment of livestock here was remarkably organized.

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On one side of the busy road are the milking herd of just under 2000 Jersey crossbreds and the farm’s young calves. On the other side are the silos, commodity sheds, dry cows, some of the heifers, 30 head of beef cattle, and the prized herd of 90 Watusis.

A closer look revealed two Buffalo in the cattle corrals, and a flock of 300 ewes (with their seven guard-llamas) grazing pasture strips around them.

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There’s a lot going on at Ponderovey. August 2012 marked 100 years for the Rovey family to be farming and dairying in the Grand Canyon State. Their greatest challenge, says Paul, has been “the encroachment of the city. We have to do a perfect job to maintain that equilibrium.” 

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Ask what gives him the greatest satisfaction, and he smiles: “Seeing my kids getting into the business and seeing them build their interest and technical skills and opportunities.”

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Paul and Deborah Rovey have five children. Traesa, Tamara, Eric, Mark and Brett are the fourth generation in Arizona, and the third generation on the farm started by Paul’s father.  Eric and Brett are involved in the 1500 acres of crops, mostly located west of Glendale.  Mark manages the cattle and sheep. And Tamara works in the farm office where one of her responsibilities is to source and purchase feed ingredients.

This year, the Roveys went back to farming the land belonging to other family members. The land had previously been leased to others to grow feed the Roveys then purchased for their livestock.

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“One-third of those acres were being planted to cotton, but we were in need of feed,” Paul relates. “That didn’t make much sense when we owned the land and could be making feed for ourselves and our fellow dairymen.”

Today, they grow their own forages, including corn and sorghum for silage, as well as alfalfa and Bermuda grass. They bag barley, cottonseed and silage.

The dairy has certainly grown and changed since Paul’s grandparents — Albert and Minnie Rovey –settled in Phoenix in 1912 just after Minnie gave birth to twins back in Illinois. Doctors said she had tuberculosis and would not survive six months in the Midwest climate. So they headed southwest to start a new life in sunny Arizona. They farmed in what is now downtown Phoenix. Paul’s father, Emil, was born four years after the move to Arizona. Albert died when Emil was 12 but Minnie lived to be 96.

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In 1943, when Emil Rovey returned from college, he bought the current dairy farm location and married Paul’s mother Helen. Paul is one of nine children. As he grew up on the Glendale farm — nine miles northwest of Phoenix — he developed a passion for the dairy and knew it’s what he wanted to do. He bought the dairy from his father after returning from the University of Arizona in 1978. That’s when the Ponderovey name came into use.

“When I was dating my wife, her mother would call us the ‘Cartwrights’ (from the television show ‘Ponderosa’),” said Rovey in response to a question about how the dairy got its name. Like that famous television family, the Roveys are involved in the farming and non-farming communities and have found various ways to ‘give back’ at the local, state, and national levels.

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Ponderovey Dairy isn’t fancy, but it’s replete with purposeful innovations. Curtained and non-curtained cooling systems, as well as a Saudi-style barn, are three ways they provide shading and cooling to the Jersey dairy cattle in the corrals. Cow comfort is also important in the parlor, so the old double-16 parallel was upgraded with automatic detachers and rubber flooring.

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While the Roveys grew their dairy herd over the past 30 years, the dairy infrastructure in Arizona was also growing at an even faster rate.

“Our strong infrastructure is UDA, which is an incredible cooperative,” says Paul. “We also have tremendous dairymen in this state. It’s hard to milk cows in Arizona, so our dairymen are some of the fittest around.”

In the past 20 years, dairies have sprung up to the south, and Arizona has become the state with the largest average herd size at 2000 head.  By comparison, California’s average herd size is around 850 head, and the U.S. average is 175. The largest herds in Arizona exceed 10,000 head. The state’s 90 dairies produces 2% of the nation’s total milk supply. In addition to cheese and innovative dairy proteins, UDA serves the fluid milk market in Phoenix.

Utilization is roughly one-third fluid milk, one-third cheese and one-third powder. If they have excess milk, it’s not easy to truck it anywhere else, according to Rovey, so UDA has created ways to balance their own market. Their percentage of total production going for export is “really high” because they chose to develop markets off shore. In 2010, the UDA cooperative was named Dairy Exporter of the Year.

“The swings in production from summer to winter are tremendous here,” says Paul. Summer temps can reach 115 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is humidity here in July and August.

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The Ponderovey dairy herd of close to 2000 cows is primarily Jersey and Jersey crosses, but only about 10% of the dairy cattle in Arizona are Jerseys.

“We were milking a little over 2200 cows at one time and then we sold 240 head,” notes Paul’s son Mark who manages the dairy herd and other livestock at Ponderovey. “The day after selling those cows, our milk volume was down, but two days after that, we shipped more milk than when those cows were here. We were making more milk with fewer cows, so now we make it a point to stay below 2000 to avoid overcrowding.”

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This has enabled Ponderovey Dairy to sell 700 to 800 head of Jerseys for dairy replacements annually.

“Everyone wants Jerseys. They make good quality milk for cheese, and I like their temperament,” says Paul, noting they also have 250 Brown Swiss and a few Holsteins.

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Breeding and herdsmanship are son Mark’s priority, and his commercial husbandry is top notch. All dairy and beef animals are bred A.I., and freeze branding is used for identification instead of hot brands.

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The market steer project is something Mark has taken keen interest in. Using the Jersey cross as his base, he incorporated Maine Anjou and Gelbveih to produce some award-winning junior market beef at county fairs and the Arizona State Fair.

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“We can grow steers for FFA and 4-H by using A.I. semen to improve our base of cows,” Paul explains. “Our focus is to provide affordable project calves and give kids the opportunity to show animals they can make money on, so they learn a lot and come away with a real positive animal experience.”

On the east side of the valley, for example, is Sunshine Acres, a boys’ home with an ag program. Paul explains how opportunities to show market steers and market lambs can change young lives and plant seeds of good will for animal agriculture.

In similar fashion, the flock of sheep developed when Paul started supporting the county fair auctions.  After buying and selling to the resale pen for years, Paul decided six years ago to be the resale buyer on the ewes. He started bringing ewes home to graze the odds-and-ends pastures of alfalfa and Bermuda grass that were too small to harvest efficiently with the big equipment used on larger fields.

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The flock is mainly Suffolk and Hampshire, producing youth show lambs and also commercial market lambs that are in high demand for the ethnic market.

Being inquisitive by nature, Paul Rovey takes an obvious interest in everything going on around him. He prides himself on looking for better ways of doing things and admits he serves on boards largely because he “sticks (his) nose into things and asks questions about doing things better.”

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He’s a fan of win-win solutions. One example at the farm is his decision many years ago to stop selling dairy bull calves off the farm. Instead, they are harvested at birth and the meat is frozen for the Condor project at the Vermillion Cliffs. For more than 12 years, Ponderovey Dairy has supplied food for the project that is bringing back the population of California Condors from near extinction with a clean and consistent food supply. Today, the number of bull calves born at Ponderovey Dairy is on the decline due to the use of sexed semen.

Through his milk promotion service chairing the board of DMI, Paul sees firsthand how important it is to tell dairy’s story and to show animal well-being on the farm.

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Dehorning is another win-win example. The Roveys use lidocane to numb their dairy and beef cattle at the site of dehorning. “It’s so simple and cheap, and it just works beautifully,” states Paul, adding that the use of lidocane has “helped our bottom line.”

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With proper restraint and the lidocane, he says the now pain-free procedure can be handled by one individual instead of multiple employees.

Perhaps the part of the farm that made the biggest impression was the Watusi herd. These grand bovines are prized for their large diameter horns. Their ancestry goes back 6000 years to Africa, and they are often referred to as the “cattle of kings.” At Ponderovey, however, the Watusi steers are named for Civil War Generals, except for “Little Guy,” the seven-year-old steer Mark Rovey has trained to ride in parades and FFA events.

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“Once you have hold of their horns, you can pretty much do what you want,” Mark explains, noting the Watusis are born with a half-inch horn nub and can add about a foot of horn growth annually. While horn span (tip to tip) reaches an average 7 to 8 feet. Ponderovey has some that span 9 to 11 feet.

One of the Rovey herd originals — and a family favorite, the late Gen. Beauregard — had horns that spanned nine feet. He was trained to kneel so people could get on and ride. He was trained to stand on a pedestal and to walk into a modified top-off Cadillac where he would ride passenger-style with head and shoulders (and horns) exposed beside the driver in parades and other events. Mark said it took 20 minutes to train him to walk into the modified Cadillac.

“There have been none quite like him,” said Paul wistfully about the prized steer that lived to age 10. “He was golden.” General Buford was another well-trained crowd pleaser, and lived to 22.

General Buford was another well-trained crowd pleaser, and lived to 22. At the farm office, Paul pulls up photos on his iPad of the late General Beauregard, one of the farm’s original Watusi cattle. The Roveys had trained him to be ridden and to stand in a modified open-top Cadillac for parades. Beau did 70 events a year for four years before he died, including visits to many schools throughout the region .

General Buford was another well-trained crowd pleaser, and lived to 22. At the farm office, Paul pulls up photos on his iPad of the late General Beauregard, one of the farm’s original Watusi cattle.  Beau did 70 events a year for four years before he died, including visits to many schools throughout the region .

Today, it’s General Longstreet and “Little Guy” that are the Ponderovey ambassadors for agriculture. The Watusis have been a fixture at the farm because Paul loves how their breeding program has produced offspring with different colors and markings and because the family enjoys training them and taking them to public events.

At elementary schools and FFA events. Mark says the Watusi cattle “are a good way to start a conversation about agriculture.”

“Whether we are talking about milk cows, or beef cattle, or anything about agriculture, these steers are big, and they make a big impression. People want to have their pictures taken with them,” Mark explains. “We roll that enthusiasm right into a conversation about agriculture and where their food comes from.”

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Adds Paul: “When you can make a big impression, people remember what you said. The Watusis really capture that attention.”

The message Mark takes to town today, like his Dad before him, is also what he enjoys most about life on the farm… “the satisfaction of providing safe, affordable, nutritious food for America.”

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