'Ignorant' chicken questions....

emyers(8 SC)September 25, 2008

I want some chickens... at least I think I do.

We have quite a bit of property with nearest neighbor 1-1/2 miles away.

My yard is surrounded by pine & hardwood "forests".

So, I'm kind of interested in the whole free range chicken idea.

Can I just kind of let them run around wherever they like, but give them a place to come home to and expect them to come back on a daily/nightly basis?

Do I need to give them a place to roost or will they just kind of hang out in the trees?

Would like to have some method of collecting manure & eggs, so I'm figuring I need some sort of containment method.

Also, don't think my wife is going to be too keen on the idea of having a whole bunch of chickens running around the yard when friends come over.... so need to be able to work around that little technicality.

Wondering how the dogs factor into the equation.

Was also thinking Bantams possibly instead of chickens because of feed expense (Rodales mentions less upkeep etc).

But also thinking with free range anything that I MIGHT not have to feed them anything (I mean they could potentially have unlimited access to whatever they want in the woods correct?

Also, can you go away for, say, a weekend without worrying too much about your chickens?

Anyway, my wheels are just kind of starting to turn on this and was thinking that if I get some thoughts together maybe spring I'd be able to dabble a little in this.

Any thoughts?

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sullicorbitt(z5 MA)

You need to have a coop or some sort of secure structure for them to be locked up at night, they will return and roost inside your coop and lay their eggs. If you have woods all around and dogs you will want to fence them in a yard to keep them safe. Dogs could be a problem, mine are good w/my birds but many are not and will kill them.

You definitely need to provide food and water for your birds, they will get bugs and plant material free ranging but you will need to still provide food and water. Leaving them for a weekend will depend entirely on your setup. If you have a large coop and can set up plenty of food and water you could keep them locked inside for a day or two but personally I would want to have someone come to check on my birds.

Sounds like you are looking for a no maintenance type bird, not sure poultry is for you unless you are willing to commit to their care.


    Bookmark   September 26, 2008 at 7:53AM
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emyers(8 SC)

Thanks sheila.
Not really looking for a no maintenance bird, just wanted to see what was necessary.
You've cleared a lot up for me, and it sounds as though it could work for me.
My dogs are a beagle, and two stray lab mixes.
All the dogs are "gentle". Just wondering if you or anyone had any first hand experience with the suitability of the breed.
I have this dog pen (you know the chain link fence type with a gate, 8 or so foot high "walls", probably 10 x 10) that I purchased to get my beagle acclimated to his surroundings before letting him "free range".
Would that be a suitable area for them to come to at night?

I'm ASSUMING, that if my dogs don't harm the chickens (how would I know other than trying?) and that there are no other animals to be concerned about nearby (because of the yard dogs) that I could let them run loose during the day and then somehow direct them back to the pen (coop?) at night where they would nest?

If I put the pen in the edge of the woods (shaded area) would it need to have a roof of some sort? Is it conceivable that they could roost in the trees above the pen and still "feel/be" protected?

What do I need to do to make this happen by spring?

    Bookmark   September 26, 2008 at 9:09AM
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Please don't assume your dogs are keeping all preditors out of your yard. We livetrapped a coon in the barn the other night, which kill chickens, 40 feet away from the coop. We have 20 dogs, beagles and mutts. One austrialian shepherd mix. All of my dogs are in runs, and they are spread all around the property.

If you want eggs, you will need to have your chickens in a run with a coop and nesting boxes. Also, I would suggest a top on a 10 x 10 kennel to keep out preditors.

Chickens are low man on the totem pole and everything eats chicken.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2008 at 9:45AM
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Not ignorant questions at all--just wish more people would think about what they are doing before getting poultry!
You will need an enclosed coop for roosting at night, protection from predators and warmth in winter. The dog run is doable after some remodeling. Also, remember that some predators dig, so you need to protect from both the top and from the bottom.We dug down 18", put chicken wire and bricks in, and covered that with dirt to surround our coop.
Also, you will need to introduce your chickens to your dogs. Make sure your dogs know these are NOT a new toy, or prey. You know your dogs and will be able to handle the introductions.
You may want to start with mature laying hens. They are a little more expensive than pullets, but you won't have the trouble and worry of chicks.
Explore the web to find a breed of chicken that will suit you. We have black Australorps because they are reliable layers, nice chickens and can take the Texas heat. Banties are nice, but lay tiny, tiny eggs!
We free-range our hens from early morning to dusk. They go to their coop about sundown without any fuss. You will find that if you keep your hens in their coop for a week or so after you get them, they will recognize it as "home" and return in the early evening. If their only source of feed and water is in the coop, that makes homing them easier.
Start small. I wanted 24 chickens, my husband negotiated me down to 8. Thank heavens! I am so glad we don't have two dozen chickens to feed, water, keep an eye on and the thought of all those eggs gives me hives!
Sorry to go on so, but you asked good questions and seem like a person who will care for poultry and enjoy it.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2008 at 12:01PM
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Hi, this is my first year with chickens so I'm by no means an expert. What I can recommend is to research, research, research! Asking questions here is part of the process but I also read Storey's chicken book as well as another that escapes my mind at the moment. I looked at a few poultry sites and googled several subjects I was confused about. I received lots of invaluable advice and comments here. My first year with my birds has gone rather well, with one loss recently due to unknown causes. I was quite sad about it but that is part of the whole experience of having birds, to expect a certain amount of loss for whatever reasons. Anyway...
Some things that I have learned is that under NO circumstances do you "trust" your dog, despite his personality. My (very) old lab Jake lives in peace and harmony with our other lab and our many cats. He doesn't get excited about much of anything and there is not a mean bone in his body. Well, he definitely gets excited about the chickens. His breed was bred to pay attention to birds and I guess you can't expect them to lose that. He doesn't lunge the fence or anything but stands there and barks at them excitedly. I know if one of my birds happened to be out of the fence, he would go for it. So, you must keep them penned for their own safety, especially if you have a dog. Neighbor dogs are nosy as well and will travel.

I open the chicken coop in the morning and fill the outside waterer. If I have any scraps, I spread them about the run. I check for eggs several times a day. At supper time I go out and fling some scratch around the run (cracked corn, I've only started this since it has been chilly in the late afternoon), I fill my feeders with layer feed and fill the inside waterer. If I have any more scraps I toss them out as well. They seem healthy and happy. My set-up right now would not allow me to not tend them daily. It really isn't a chore for me, though. It is relaxing and I enjoy collecting my eggs and seeing what I get each day. I think there are certain breeds of birds who are better "hustlers" than others. I would never think I could get by with not giving my birds their layer rations because I feel like I am getting a service from them (eggs) and I need to give them what will help them do that the best. The bugs and forage is great, keeps them happy, and makes for "farm fresh eggs."

Your pen would make a decent run for the right amount of birds. You would still need an enclosed shelter where they can roost at night. I was amazed at how vulnerable they are as soon as the sun goes down. I love my birds and enjoy them a lot but they are not my "pets," such as coming up to me to pet. They follow me around in the run looking for treats but will run when I try to touch them. At night, they sit on their roosts and I can pick them up. So your birds need a place that is secure from critters that would try to get them when they are in this state. Easy pickins, for sure. Plus, if you are getting the heavy-type laying breeds, they probably won't be flying to tree limbs to roost. Mine were pretty flighty when they were younger but as they have matured, their flying is pretty much "doing the airplane take-off" down the run in the morning. They fly but only for short distances and not far off the ground. It gives them exercise and makes them happy to do it but while I get an occasional prison break, I would never think they would make it to the tree limbs.

If you live in a rural area, there will ALWAYS be critters about, some of which will want to eat your birds and/or their eggs. Having dogs and cats may deter some but never all. Especially in winter, hunger will make them very bold. Double that if they have babies of their own to feed! My neighbor live-trapped a full grown bobcat last week who was snatching all of her birds during the DAY, one by one. Her birds free-ranged with no fencing and roosted in a secure area at night.

I'm sorry this got so long winded. I thought it might help to have a newbie's perspective. I hope you do get a few birds, it is very rewarding. Lori

    Bookmark   September 27, 2008 at 12:40AM
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sullicorbitt(z5 MA)

Think solid shed type structure for the coop, the coop needs to be tight, no cracks or holes for weasels or other predators. The only way to predict how your dogs will be is to test them out w/supervision, my feeling is if you raise your birds from chicks the dogs with continued controlled exposure will come to accept the chickens as part of the pack. We have a lab/shep. mix and a rough collie, both are excellent around our birds but they had lots of exposure to them from the very beginning.

An attached pen (to your coop) could also have a covered roof, if you are surrounded by woods I wouldn't chance any birds out free ranging w/out some sort of fence. My large chickens have a fenced area to prevent day time predators but my smaller fancy breeds have a totally covered outdoor run to prevent hawk attacks etc. Crested breeds and small bantams are much more vulnerable to these attacks due to lack of vision and light weight easy grabs.

I'm including a link to some pictures of my setup, we have two separate coops separated by a pocket door, this keeps my roo in the back coop where we have some sound insulation to muffle his wake up call. It also keeps the little bantams safe from his hugeness.


Here is a link that might be useful: some pictures of my setup

    Bookmark   September 27, 2008 at 9:54PM
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My chicken coup is a large cage built on top of a metal table. It use to be a bird cage. I have 6 girls and they love it. We are putting up a net over the top of the pen to keep flying preditors out and have put poles around the bottom. I lock them up every night and let them out early in the morning. They are great! I love the fresh eggs and watching them play but...they are work keeping the coup clean and fresh water and raking out the pen occassionaly. But i think they are worth it and each has their own name and personality!

    Bookmark   September 29, 2008 at 4:21PM
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Labs are wonderful and gentle breeds, but my son has labs and they were not good with or around poultry. So, he doesn't not keep poultry anymore.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2008 at 1:12AM
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emyers(8 SC)

Just wanted to thank everyone for their feedback. Still thinking everything through, but I have enough enough to get started with the idea I think.

Give me a couple weeks and I think I'll be back with more questions.


    Bookmark   September 30, 2008 at 9:31PM
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I disagree with the people who say chickens aren't low maintenance. If you have large feeders and waterers they are very low maintenance. I have 28 chickens and there's very little work involved with them.

If I were you I would use your dog pen as a run and build a coop onto one side of it (you really do need a coop otherwise your losses to predators at night would be huge). I free range my chickens but it's still nice to have a run so that when I do go out of town for the weekend they have a run to go in. You will need to cover the top with chicken wire so predators don't get in.

To cut down on the time needed to clean the coop I use the deep litter system. Basically you just cover the floor of the coop with about 4 inches of litter (I like to use leaves the keep the smell down for longer and they're free every fall)if it starts to smell you can throw some more leaves in. Once that doesn't work anymore and the smell persist, then shovel it all out, compost it a couple months and spread it on your garden, it's awesome fertilizer. By doing this I never have to clean out the coop more that once a month.

Other neccesities in the coop are some roosting poles off the ground and nesting boxes. They know what to do with the roosts by themselves but you may have to encourage them to use the nesting boxes by putting in a couple fake eggs until they get the idea.

But to give you an idea of the work involved here's my chicken routine. In the morning, after feeding my dog, he and I walk out to the coop, I open the coop door and they come flying and running out. I check to make sure they have food and water, generally I have to fill them up every 3 days. At night after I feed my dog and after the sun has set but before it's full dark, he and I walk out to the coop, collect the eggs, count the chickens to make sure they're all there and close the door. Every couple of week I replenish the straw in the nesting boxes. When the coop gets an odor I shovel it out and spread fresh litter. Spring and fall when I change the litter I also hose everything down and give it a good scrubbing. That's about it.

One thing to consider when you free range your birds is that you will lose some. I've lost the most to neighbors dogs but I think a bobcat got a couple too. A way to deal with this is to buy a heritage breed that will set on it's own eggs. This way they'll replace themselves so you won't need to keep buying more.

A side note to those who think this last paragraph was heartless. I am not glib about losing birds I am sad whenever one gets eaten but I've come to accept the fact that chickens are the bottom of the food chain. Even when my birds die young I still feel they had great lives. I know they enjoy themselves more than birds that are protected in a run all the time. And they are definitely better off than factory layers.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2008 at 9:11PM
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emyers(8 SC)

Jemica & Nelda-

Thanks for the very thorough real life examples and recommendations. I can guarantee you I'll be rereading your posts many times, so thanks for being, as you say, long winded.

I'll definitely be back with more questions.

Here's one for starters.

Would I be overcomplicating things for myself in a BIG way, if I decided to hatch some chicks right off the bat? I was looking at some directions for building some low tech incubators, and it didn't seem all that difficult.

Really want my kids to be involved in this (7 & 5 year old animal lovers), but also don't know if I'm biting off more than I "should" chew.

Maybe the first question should be is if this is even feasible. I mean, do chicks need adult chickens right off the bat or can you just start with chicks?

What would you recommend?

And oh yeah. You mention the smell....
Well, I'm familiar with the smell of chicken litter, and yeah, it's not necessarily the most pleasant smell (unless you're a vegetable or flower), so I was wondering what the ideal location relative to my house would be.

Do I put it as far away as possible (har har).... really though, how far is a comfortable distance? I'd like it to be close enough so my dogs are a deterent to other critters in the woods around here (no neighbors), but still far enough away, to reasonably keep the smell at bay. Any other considerations as to placement? I'm assuming down wind would be a good idea?

Also, should I put it in a deep shaded hardwood area or a less filtered planted pine area or maybe in direct sunlight.

    Bookmark   October 4, 2008 at 11:13PM
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emyers - don't bite off more than you can chew. start out slow and small. I started off with day old chickens that I bought from mcmurray hatcheries they were delivered by mail to my p.o. box-I called to let them know when they would arrive (post office) and gave them my # they called me on a Sunday morning around 6:30-7am and we went & picked them up and we were off on the great chicken farmer experience - by the way I am 47 and my children are 4 & 7 I am also going to college - so working,(my husband only) my kids in school and me also - we still manage to work and play so it is doable - you and your family will enjoy the experience. We let our children pick out their own chicken to buy and did chores to earn money to purchase them. This is a good teaching tool for your kids they also help with the chores - like feeding, gathering eggs and helping to clean out the coop! This gives them a sense of responsibility and much more!! When your hens get to the laying stage and IF you have a roo you can let your hens sit on eggs and hatch them themselves ---- how fun it is to go out to the coop--not to mention the excitement--to see if the eggs have hatched yet it takes about 3 weeks. My kids just loved seeing their chickens become mommy's!!My chicken coop is about 100ft away from house we have bushes around parts of the house and the chickens love to lay under them and yes they ROOST IN THEM AS WELL! we have 4 acres and part of it is wooded and they love that-that way they have shade to keep cool I always have buckets set out in several places so that they always have fresh water-I live in Mooresville, IN and we have hawks several varities and we have the usual array of coons, skunks, fox and coyotes-the only trouble we have had is mainly the hawks and one time a weasel got in the chicken coop at night by digging and ripping through wall-killing about 8 of our girls and hurting 4 it was a sad day! hawks can fly through the woods and can get to your girls.
we built what we call mini coopers when the girls were small so that we could put them out during the day so they were safe from hawks and then put them up at night in the coop. my girls love to spread out on the deck and lay in the sun and they love to find dirt and have a dirt bath I don't think the smell is that bad especially if you keep the coop clean. I liked the ideal of using leaves-thanks jenica! what is your setup like? do you have any woods or trees or a group of trees that you could build your coop by? Oh when we built the coop we went to the city dump and we got all the shingles,posts,2x4's and insulation/sound proofing material for inside coop all for FREE! it all still had the tags on the wood and shingle were all still enclosed in their original package - you would not believe what construction workers throw away-my brother in law helped us build it and my other brother in law wired it for us (FREE) our only cost was the fencing and the store made a mistake on their estimate - more to the story-but ended up getting the fence at 1/2 price. have fun emyers family!

    Bookmark   October 5, 2008 at 12:32AM
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hi msjay2u

hey I saw your coop when you first started it. looks great! you have chickens -how many? I like your feeder wish I had thought of it. Yes everybody is nice here - i get lots of good advice I think I learn something new everyday-just was taking a break from studying and saw your post. had to tell you your coop is great.must get back and finish homework - it is time for me to turn in.


    Bookmark   October 6, 2008 at 2:01AM
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Hi msjay2u,

Love your feeder-too. I've tried all kinds of waterers and the common problem is the birds will have all kinds of stuff stuck to their bills and then dip into the waterer and thus you have mud. The best I've found is the cup-less auto waterers they use a 5 gal bucket as the water supply. It is placed or hung from a hook about 5' above the ground and gravity makes it work. It has a 3/8" waterline down to a cup-less water tip. Different brands have different kinds of tip, but they all work about the same. The chickens learn fast how to get a drink from them. Only drawback is they freeze in the winter. They are available for most poultry suppliers and they a relatively cheap considering the labor savings and the added health benefits you baby's will have with a clean water supply.

    Bookmark   October 6, 2008 at 4:07PM
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thanks for the compliments on my coop. I was working on that while recovering from a car accident. In the meantime the chickens were taking over the basement.

I thought that feeder was a great idea and it really has worked for me. I am thinking of getting my rotozip out and make a viewer so I can see how much feed is in the tube.

emyers I just want to tell you so far my chickens have not been a lot of work at all. I do not have problems with smell...I will use a small amount of pine chips on the ground but I was using straw. When I clean up the coop I will be keeping the pine chips mixed with poop so I can bury them and they can compost and be of some use. I have elephant ears that I know if I add chicken compost will make GIANT leaves.

Another thing about them is that they eat ALL of my table scraps and that makes for a good relationship. Living out in the county without garbage service I am happy tu turn my scraps over to the chickens. So far I am not aware of any mice or anything hanging out in the coop stealing my girls food. SO FAR

Oh and my coop was no way near free. It seemed like the expenses never stopped so if you got materials free you did GEAAAT!

LASTLY I only have 2 chickens and for me that is plenty.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2008 at 10:03PM
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emyers(8 SC)

Nelda & MsJay-
Just to let you know I'm still following the thread. Thanks for the additional insight.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2008 at 11:41PM
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I second Nelda's vote, start off with day-old chicks. I ordered from McMurray hatchery my first time and all the chicks showed up alive and healthy so in that respect they're pretty good. As far as the quality of the breed I'd rather go with Ideal Hatchery. My RIRs from McMurray are consistent layers but they lay small to medium eggs and RIR are suppose to lay large. Also the Americuana roo from them doesn't have the earmuffs they're suppose to have. My Americaunas from Ideal are beautiful and are breed standard. So for quality of breed I'd go for Ideal hatchery. Plus they allow smaller orders.

As for raising chicks, they definitely don't need a chicken to raise them. In fact if you stick a bunch of chicks in with a chicken that is not it's mom chances are she'll kill them. Here's how I raise my day old chicks... First of all you need a brooder box. Chicks need to be kept very warm at first, 95 degrees the first week and then decreasing 5 degrees for every week after that until they are feathered out. I usually get my chicks in the summer because it makes it much easier to keep them warm.

I built my brooder box myself and I designed it with a removable bottom so I could let the chicks be on the grass and eat bugs during the day. (you shouldn't let them free range until the are almost full grown or they will get picked off by hawks. It's basically a 3'x4'x3' two by four frame with hardware cloth sides, a hinged plywood top, a bottom that connects with 4 latches, and my nephews training wheels attached to two corners of the bottom so I can move it around easily. At night I cover the whole thing with a old comforter. I pull back one part of the comforter and I put one of those radiant dish heaters up against the hardware cloth to keep them warm.

I always keep chick starter food in the brooder box and plenty of clean water. If the chicks are crowded or bored they can peck each other bloody. Putting them on grass during the day alleviates that and to help at night I throw a bunch of grass clippings on the bottom. If you do this, it'll probably keep them from starting to peck which is good because once they start they are really hard to break of the habit. When they are a couple weeks old I add some roosts to the brooder box so the get used to roosting. If you don't do this when they are young they may not roost at all.

This kind of brooder box also helps when introducing new chicks to an older flock. I did that this summer and it worked great. The big chickens would come everyday to check out the chicks through the sides of the brooder box so they really got used to them early on. I've heard some horror stories about big chickens killing chicks when people tried to put them in together. They say to wait until the chicks are grown before trying to blend the two flocks or there will be trouble. But because my chicks and chickens got to visit with each other everyday I was able to combine the chicks with the chickens at 6 weeks. I watched them closely when I combined them and gave them a lot of supervision for the first week or so but they did really well. The chicks were definitely bottom of the totem pole but beyond the occasional "watch it youngun'" peck from a chicken everyone got along well.

Another bit of advice, when you build nesting boxes build them with the tops at 45 degree angles so chickens can't decide to sleep up there. I think 18 inches wide is a good width for the nesting boxes. My coop came with our house and the nesting boxes were built with flat tops and half of them are only 12 inches wide. The chickens like to walk around on top of the boxes before they go in to lay which means chicken poop to clean up. Also they all fight over the bigger boxes, sometimes they're be two or three hens smooshed into one of them. My nesting boxes also came with nailed on fronts that go about a quarter of the way up. This keeps the hay in the nesting boxes well but makes it a hassle to clean out. I plan on rebuilding them when I get the time and when I do, they'll all be 18 inches wide with slanted tops and hinged fronts for easy cleaning.

Okay and for the end of this book of a post. Chicken poop doesn't really have a strong odor if it gets mixed with litter. It's only when a bunch of it is on it's own that it gets stinky. (which is why I'm always cleaning off the top of the stupid nesting boxes!) My hen house is in a stall of my barn which is about 300 feet from the house and I have never gotten the slightest whiff of the chickens at the house. Actually though, I usually don't smell anything until I'm in the barn. If there's a strong smell in the barn then I know I really need to clean out the coop.

To sum everything up most of my work goes into setup to make my life easier. The training wheels on the brooder box keep me from killing my back. The detachable bottom means I can hose down the bottom instead of scraping it out. The grass clippings greatly reduce the amount of stuck on poop. The hardware cloth sides mean I can combine the flocks sooner which means half the work. The new design on the nesting boxes means easier clean-up. You get the idea


    Bookmark   October 11, 2008 at 10:55PM
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Chicks will sometimes pick at each other out of boredom but will also do it when the food dishes are empty for very long-especially with Cornish x (meat birds). If you see a chick that is picked and has bear or bloody spot use blue and green food coloring (equal parts mixed together)on them. This seems to cover the red that the others are attracted to. Another thing is to hang small red plastic balls 2 or 3" above their heads. They will peck at them instead of each other. Another thing that keeps them from pecking is lots of busy food-all kinds of melons-over grown cucumbers and squash of all sorts-apples/pears and pumpkins too.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2008 at 12:16AM
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emyers(8 SC)

Wow. That's a lot of info. Thanks a bunch. Please feel freee to "write a book" anytime you see fit as it relates to my topics!

As always, thanks for your input.


    Bookmark   October 13, 2008 at 7:20PM
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