Soil Under/After Chickens

tigerdawn(7)July 7, 2011

So I've been reading about people having trouble with the soil where chickens live(d). I'd like to know more about that. My Mom keeps saying she wants a garden with a chicken coop in the middle so she can let the chickens into an area for a while and they can fertilize the soil and then garden in that spot while the chickens are in another area. But it sounds like that might not work like she hopes. Thoughts?

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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

There's a big difference in the way chickens would affect soil if they are occasionally allowed into a garden area versus if they are kept in a confined area, like a chicken run, for a long period of time.

THE FENCED CHICKEN RUN: It's pretty simple really. Chicken manure, when deposited in the same soil over a long period of time, can ruin the soil. In general, they mess up the soil's pH and tend to leave it high is phosphorus/phosphate. If you dug up soil from a longtime fenced chicken run where chickens were confined and sent it off for a soil test, your soil test results would likely indicate unhealthy levels of phosphates and salts. Your "recommended actions" most likely would include a note to you to stop applying superphosphates because that's what it would look like on a soil test---like you had been overapplying superphosphate fertilizers for years. To fix the soil, they likely would tell you to add humus, compost, carbon, nitrogen, etc. to try to bring the soil back into balance. They'd likely tell you not to apply any phosphate at all in any form.

Chickens have other habits that change the soil in their run over time. First of all, they promptly eat anything green that sprouts. With nothing green growing there, no humus is going back into the soil so you end up with soil lacking in humus and, therefore, lacking in the microbial life that exists in soil. So, the soil would be sterile and unhealthy. There likely would be no earthworms in the soil, and probably not any other insects living in the soil.(If there were any there, the chickens would dig them up and eat them.) A lack of earthworms is a sign of poor soil health.

Also, chickens like to dust bathe. They kick up, dig up, scratch up and disturb the soil and bathe in the dust, which helps control mites. It is bad for the soil, though, as all that constant disturbance keeps it dry and dusty. There's usually heavily compacted soil, like a layer of hardpan, a few inches down...just below the area where they stop digging.

Our chicken run is in the narrow band of soil that cuts across our property and it was put there on purpose as they would find it easier to take dust baths in sandy soil than in clay soil. It also was sited there so they are in shade most of the day. The soil in the run, and even around its outer perimeter where they like to dig, scratch and dust bathe on hot days when they're out free-ranging, is poor quality---compacted down underneath, dusty on top, nothing growing in it, no humus or compost in it, etc. Were we to move the chicken coop and run someplace else, I wouldn't even try to plant anything in that soil until I'd had a soil test, worked hard to amend the soil by adding tons of organic matter, and then had it tested again months later or a year later to see if the soil was sufficiently improved for planting purposes.

Often, soil in a fenced chicken run can smell really bad after a large numbers of chickens have been kept on the soil for years. If you have enough rainfall in your area and the soil gets 'flushed' by rainwater often enough, this will not be as large of a problem as it would be on heavy clay soil in an area of low rainfall and infrequent rain heavy enough to flush the soil well.

CHICKENS TURNED LOOSE TO ROAM IN YARDS AND GARDENS: If you let your chickens roam around, they will drop manure wherever they wish. This can be even less pleasant than it sounds because you really don't want to walk in it, or touch it with your hands when you're working in flower beds or veggie garden beds or wherever. Also, since they drop it just wherever they happen to be, it is not evenly distributed, making it a spotty and inconsistent method of soil improvement.

Chickens are very destructive to existing plantings and I almost never let them in the veggie garden from February through November when stuff is growing in it. They usually are allowed in the veggie garden after we're through gardening for the year and they're helpful because they patrol the garden beds rigorously for insects. However, they also can damage whatever you have in the garden in the off-season, including your garlic and any perennial herbs, flowers or veggies like walking onions or chives.

Gardening with chickens is a popular concept, but I have found it works better if I keep them mostly separate from one another. We prefer to put the chicken bedding/manure on the compost pile and let it decompose properly before adding the compost to the garden beds. We let the chickens run all over the yard eating bugs, but not in the garden during the gardening season where they do enough damage digging, scratching, and pecking tomatoes, cucumbers and mleons that I'd rather have the bugs in the garden than the chickens.

If your mom built a divided fenced garden with, say, a chicken coop in the middle and then used 1/2 the garden as a chicken run one year while the other 1/2 was the garden...and then reversed that in the fall, so that the next spring's garden would go into the previous chicken run and vice versa, it might work since the chickens would only be in the chicken run area for a year. Still, you might find you have to add a lot of compost to the run area before planting it as the garden area. I think the best time to make the switch would be after the garden is through producing in the fall. That way, the chickens would be turned lose in the previous garden area and could get busy cleaning it up, while pulling them off the chicken run area that will be planted as a garden in a few months give rainfall time to flush excess salts and phosphate from the soil, gives the gardener time to add organic matter to the soil to replace what the chickens depleted, and would give earthworms and microbial life a few months to return to the soil before it was planting time.

After having our two fenced chicken runs in the same spot since 2004, I'd say their soil probably is the worst soil on our property at this point, but that's not unexpected and I never intended for the chicken run area to ever be anything other than a chicken run so it doesn't bother me.

The area where we had the chickens from 1999-2004 has mostly recovered, but it stayed pretty bare for a couple of years after we moved the chickens to the new coops/fenced chicken run areas. Every year that former coop and run area has had more native plants and trees return, but it has been a slow gradual process.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 9:46AM
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Dawn, that was a beautiful, clear and concise description of what happens in a chicken run. The property we have was a commercial breeding facility for years and nearly all the 1,200 birds were kept in runs where the soil is now useless. I had originally hoped it would be workable, since all the egg farms I've ever seen have the birds in elevated pens where the manure can fall through the wire and be gathered up. Not in this situation, it can't. It would probably take several of tons of amendment to repair the soil in all of those runs. And you're absolutely right; there's not an earthworm to be seen, and not even weeds will grow in those old pens. It's been over 10 years since the bird operation went out of business, and the soil (?) in the pens has shown no sign of recovery yet.

I also try to keep our birds completely separate from the garden, although a couple of them escaped and ruined some of my bush beans before I could catch them. Last year they managed to get into the flower beds and tore up a lot of stuff also. We let them free range in the pasture, which is 5 acres, and they eat a lot of bugs, but I absolutely do not ever want them in the yard where we have plants growing. Chickens are omniverous, which means they will eat anything and everything, including plants, flowers, fruit and veggies, including melons on the vine. The amount of damage one or two of them can do in a very short time is amazing. I've seen ours go after a good-sized snake and kill it.

What I do now is to load up the manure that collects under the roosts and add it to the compost heap where it can break down with a lot of other added material, get leached by rain to reduce the ph, and maybe be usable in the future.
At one time, I thought we'd keep a few rabbits, so I'd have the manure for the garden, and it would be all in one place under the hutches to be collected. That turned out to be more trouble than it's worth, although well-aged rabbit manure can be wonderful for a garden. If the lady wants to add a bit of natural manure to her compost heap, maybe she could find someone who raises livestock (horses or rabbits) in a confined spot, and pick up a load of it from them. Would that be a reasonable alternative to what she's suggesting?
Or would it just be borrowing trouble in the way of weeds and altered ph?


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 11:22AM
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Thank you both for your experience. I will take this info to mom and see what kind of options we can come up with. I'm pretty sure she wants to raise chickens, even if they don't directly fertilize the garden. The space is really big so we might be able to work up a 4-way rotation even. That might do well with crop rotations and cover crops and the like. Anyway, thanks again!

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 7:38PM
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One of the things I've seen in discussion and never tried is a movable "free range" pen. In theory, you make a chicken-wire box that is open on the bottom side. Depending on the number of birds you want to have in it, I would think that 4x8' would be fine. It only needs to be about 24" tall or so. Maybe 30" max. Certainly no larger than you can comfortably reach inside. Now comes the tricky part. You put the cage in the area of the garden where it's wanted and where the birds won't be in blazing sun or something like that, make sure there's water available, and then stuff the birds into it (a little door or opening flap would be nice for this).

As I said, I've never tried it, but the folks who do it say that you can drag the pen along to new areas as the birds scratch and eat up what's in there. My own thought on it is that getting them in and out of it could be really interesting, unless they are really gentle, docile birds such as Cochins. Sometimes Americaunas get to the point where they can be easily handled. I sure wouldn't want to try it with my big Australorp rooster! Anyway, it's a thought.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 7:59PM
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This is my first year gardening w/ chickens. I think your mother and I must have read the same book written by Linda Woodrow. We built two center coops housing 10 chickens in each coop surrounded by 8 run/gardens. 4 are for long term growing veggies and 4 are for short term. The girls are going to rotate through the run/gardens when each is finished and before it gets replanted. Like I said this is the first year and we are working out the bugs, and we didn't have it up and all the fences in place early enough this season for a good test run. We are planting asparagus beds along the edges of the long term gardens (border area) to help control the extra phosphates since they are heavy phosphate users. It has been a lot of preliminary work in planning and fencing, but I think once the system is up and going it will work well.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 8:12PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Pat, We had rabbits after we moved here. They were "gifts" from city friends who had them and really didn't want them, so we shrugged and said "sure, we'll take them, why not?". I thought the rabit manure would be good for the garden too. What we discovered was that it was torture for the domesticated bunnies to sit in their little rabbit hutches and watch the cottontails run wild all night. They escaped every chance they got, and no matter what we did, they managed to escape from their hutches. So, we made them a fenced run like a chicken run, with a 'floor' of quarter-inch hardware cloth so they couldn't escape. Well, they escaped anyway. We finally gave up on the idea of keeping them confined, and they hung around a while but mostly ran with the wild rabbits.

Even when we had them in the hutch, I found it hard to keep them cool enough in the summer weather. We had them in full shade, and I froze 2 liter bottles of water to place in their cages. They'd plaster their bodies up against those frozen ice bottles and still seemed hot and miserable all the time.

If I wanted rabbit manure (why wouldn't this work?) I'd just buy a big bag of alfalfa pellets and put them on the compost pile. I don't think the process of the alfalfa pellets going through the rabbits' bodies enhances them in any way. I don't think you'd get a lot of weed seeds from rabbit manure unless the rabbits were free-ranging.

It is terrible that the soil where the chickens were has not recovered in 10 years, but I'm not terribly surprised. One soil is super-saturated with phosphates, it is hard to 'fix' it.

Tigerdawn, I hope you'll keep us posted on your mom's project. After about 15 or so years with chickens, I have found that real life with chickens is often a lot more complicated than the ideas presented in books and magazines. And, of course, there's a big difference in what a flock or 50 or 500 chickens would do to soil compared with 4 or 8 or 10 chickens.

Kassaundra, Good luck with your chicken run/garden project. I hope you'll keep us posted on how it goes.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 10:26PM
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Dawn, I was smiling over your account of the rabbits. Not that it was funny, but because we ran up against exactly the same thing. Mine didn't actually get loose, but I finally couldn't stand it. I felt so sorry for them that I turned them loose. They weren't lops or rex or anything fancy that might not be able to cope well, and for the longest time we'd see one of them going lippety-lop across the pasture.

I had no idea that soil could be so damaged by chickens. Boy, what a revelation. I have seen what happens when the ph is totally out of balance and the soil is so alkaline that it turns white (at least I think I'm right about the condition) but chickens? Good grief. I really don't know if we'll ever be able to do much to recover it. If we tear down those old rows of pens, it's just going to leave big strips on dead earth behind them. Each row is about 12' x 100, and we have a least 3 of them to get rid of, not counting the barn and flight pen. It's going to be awful. How depressing. Ain't it just the truth that the way it's presented in the books is not exactly the way it can really turn out to be?!

Tigerdawn, if your mother wants to keep a few birds, has she considered getting bantams? There are some really nice ones, beautiful little guys, that are wonderful to watch, and she might not run into quite as many problems with feeding and housing them. They only need a fraction of the housing space and feed. We only have about 40 Australorps now, and I don't want or need any more than that, even on our six acres. There are days every winter, when I'm lugging feed out to them and making sure their water isn't frozen (and those things must be done) when I wonder why in the world we have them. The eggs do taste good, but the amount of time and money and energy that goes into maintaining them . . And then we give away most of the eggs. We either have none, or w-a-y too many at once. What can I say.
I don't mean to sound discouraging. Maybe, if she lives in an area where she can manage to keep birds fairly safe from predators, it might be an idea to have a very small flock of small birds..


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 11:53PM
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I think she only wants a few. Enough for eggs. She's mentioned Bantams in the past.

You know, it's too bad you can't use chickens as landscaping devices; they can create a barrier between your garden and your bermuda grass! Lol! I'm imagining a little chicken tunnel around a garden! Hehe!

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 7:19AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Pat, We could have had a entire zoo after we moved here. It seems like everyone we knew had an animal or two that they thought would be 'happier' in the country.

There may be some way to heal the land, but I am not sure what it will be. Our land where our original chicken coop sat has healed, but it took several years and it never held more than maybe 50 or 60 birds at one time.

Over time, predation and old age/death has reduced our flock to about a dozen and that's about right for us. We eat all the eggs we can and give away the rest. We keep a light in the coop during the winter and ours produce year-round, although production can drop slightly in extreme cold or extreme heat.

Life is always simpler in the books! One thing I know for sure is that we're going to buy heated waterers for those two chicken coops before next winter. I had my fill last winter of breaking up ice and getting it out of the chicken waterers so I could put fresh water in them...and then, during the worst cold days, the fresh water would freeze in just a few hours.

Tigerdawn, Banties would be so perfect. They're so cute, too, and their eggs are adorably small. I don't think banty roosters realize they're small---they act as though they think they are 10' tall.

There are gardeners who have a double garden fence. The two fences can be any distance from one another, and the chickens are confined to the open space between the inner garden fence and outer garden fence. It is sometimes called a chicken moat. I've thought of doing that here, but in our case, the driveway is too close to one side of the garden for a moat so we could have a moat on 3 sides. To keep the chickens in the moat safe from predators, you'd need to have a wire fencing 'top' to create a tunnel so the hawks and other predators couldn't get them. The idea behind the moat is that the chickens would control any insects that are attempting to cross the moat to get inside the garden, and you don't grow anything in the moat that you don't want chickens to eat. Some folks don't grow anything in the moat, but others do.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 9:54AM
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She may already be aware of it, but a lot of chicken breeds come in bantam size. We always had old fashioned varieties, but my neighbor raises Old English for show, and they are a riot. They think they're big birds.
The Cochin also comes as a bantam. Take a look at the page in the link if you want to talk about garden ornaments. You have to scroll down a ways, but the photos are worth it. Show them to your Mom. There's a photo of a Partridge Cochin rooster that shows why I was sick when I lost my big standard one. I think they are the most gentle and docile of any of the breeds.

We keep the birds both for eggs and to eat bugs, but they are also great little soil cultivators, as you know full well. Now if I could just have them around the veggie garden without them being IN the veggies . . . . . . . . Last year we had a couple of watermelon plants sprout in the pasture and actually had 4 good-sized melons on them, until the chickens found them. In 24 hours they had eaten those melons down to thin, hollow shells. I already mentioned what they did to both the peach and apple trees. Not a fruit to be seen when they were finished. And I worry about wild birds getting it? HA! No contest!


Here is a link that might be useful: Poultry breed photos

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 10:06AM
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I want to try what Pat is talking about...they are called chicken tractors. I just want two chickens (I really just want one but my husband worries that she'll be lonely!). My plan is to move the tractor every couple of days. I hadn't thought about putting it in my garden area, but I might do that in the late fall/winter/early spring. I just don't want them in my flowers! Anyone have any experience with a chicken tractor?

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 11:30AM
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I love the moat idea. I'm raising a batch of new chicks now. Some jumbo crosses for the freezer were mistakenly sent by the hatchery but I think I might actually do another twenty five of them this fall.
I love, love love my Banties and will probably always have a few Old English Game Banties for lawn ornaments. This time, my "extra exotic" is a lavender d'uccle rooster bantam and he's super cute, too.
My layer chicks are americuanas, buttercups, silver leghorns, golden penciled hamburgs and, I'm trying some Egyptian Fayoumis. The Fayoumis are as wild as baby pheasant but they sure are pretty. They look like little road runners when full grown and are very, very heat tolerant.
When we move out to the country, I'll also get peafowl, guineas, turkey and ducks. I may dabble with some game birds, like pheasant, depending on where we live and how much property we have. I really miss having wild pheasant around, like when I lived in CO. I know the panhandle has pheasant, but why doesn't the rest of OK have pheasant? And what about quail? I remember seeing lots of wild turkey but never any quail and I've only seen pheasant around the Guymon area.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 1:16PM
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I agree that I'd love to have some game birds around. I do miss the quail. The only wild pheasant I've ever seen have been out in pretty remote areas like central WA, where they'll come into the wards in the winter, looking for food.
Or, of course, someplace where they have been stocked and left to run wild, like a 1,000 acre place I used to take care of in CA.
Here, I'd be afraid that they'd all be lost to predators, although I bought a dozen pair of bobwhites as a birthday present for my son-in-law. They had 80 acres and plenty of blackberry cover for the birds and it seemed to work out okay. That was a few miles NE of Seminole.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 2:24PM
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Tracy, We do have quail in Oklahoma but not nearly as many as we did years ago. Some say that when the egret was introduced here it caused a decline in the quail and bullfrogs because they eat the hatching eggs. If that is true, then it is such a shame because the egret is a 'good for nothing' bird.

You can raise quail in capitivy but they don't hatch their own eggs. You have to collect them and incubate. The summers are very hard on them and we had to keep fans on ours during the hotest parts of summer. Winter isn't too bad if they are out of the wind. Ours were caged but in winter we put small cardboard boxes inside the cage and they would hop into those so they could sit on their feet. Some breeds you can raise without a permit, but the ones that are native to Oklahoma, Bob White for instance, require a permit.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in the southern Oklahoma woods. My Dad was a big bird hunter and most of my relatives lived in the country. I never saw wild turkey, and only saw deer in Lake Murray park in those days. Now it isn't unusual to see either just driving down a rural road.

Of course, being on Grand Lake, we see the pelicans and a normal amount of geece and ducks, but nothing to compare to Arkansas. I was shocked to see the winter fields filled with geece, thousands of them.

I would probably not raise peafowl based on all the stories I have heard. They are very pretty but may be more trouble than they are worth.

At Baker Creek ( have Turkeys that are beautiful and very interesting colors.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 2:49PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

We have wild turkeys and quail on our property, but not in the numbers we had even 8 or 10 years ago. The quail, in particular, seem to be vanishing at a pretty fast rate. The wild turkeys still roam Love County quite a bit. Sometimes they'll be standing alongside the road as you're driving along or, every now and then, you'll see several of them together hanging out on a grassy area at a gas station on the western edge of Marietta.

The wild turkeys on our property seem shy and don't really like to be seen, but sometimes they'll come up every now and then to eat some of the chicken's hen scratch that I've scattered behind the barn for the cottontail rabbits. If you're really lucky, sometimes you stumble upon a male doing his little mating dance thing, trying to impress a female.

Ladychips, I'd love to have a chicken tractor, but our land here is too uneven. They need really flat land. Otherwise, on uneven ground, there can be gaps between the bottom of the chicken tractor and the ground that allow predators to get inside the tractor and get the birds.

I do think one chicken alone would be lonely. A lonely chicken will follow you around like a puppy and will want constant attention.

The animals here are so hot and so hungry and thirsty. I can walk out my door every evening and every morning and see deer. They are almost becoming a problem because I don't feel like I can walk freely around the yard with them standing there, and they don't seem inclined to leave. I believe they are expecting to be invited to join us for lunch.

We are not seeing as many snakes as we usually do, but I am enjoying not seeing them.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 3:19PM
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As far as I'm concerned, anyone who's brave enough to raise peafowl had better either deaf or have a really good set of ear plugs. The way those things scream is enough to drive you crazy. Guineas are noisy, but nothing at all compared to the peafowl. And messy?! You have no idea!! Not to mention the problem of housing them in winter. No thanks.

When it comes to the little gamebirds like quail, my feeling is that one of the major problems here (if not the primary one) is the snake population. They do love bird eggs. While the little guys can hide a nest in brambles and keep it safe from 4-legged and flying predation, nothing stops the snakes from cleaning out a nest in nothing flat. My daughter was furious when one got in and cleaned out the bluebird nest. She was so hoping that the parents would be able to hatch and raise the babies. Not a chance.

Do you need a permit to buy bobwhite if you're going to turn them loose in a pasture? They wouldn't be the least bit captive. No-one said anything to me about it when I ordered the birds to be delivered to Johnny, but that was quite a few years ago. They came from an OK gamebird breeder, so you'd think he'd have mentioned it. It may have all changed since then. It wouldn't surprise me.
On that same property between Little and Cromwell, the snow geese used to come in and nearly turn the pastures white with the numbers that were migrating.

I wish I could use heated waterers in the coop in winter, but the power line got torn up by a fellow who was in here plowing. It would be incredibly expensive to repair or replace it. That leaves me with packing water to them every day and breaking up the ice that's already there. What we do have is a stock tank with a heater in it and the birds are used to drinking out of it. We just have to make sure it's full enough for them to reach it. I also have a plain old heavy rubber ranch bucket that lives by the back door and the birds know that I always keep it full. Stepping out the back door to maintain it is infinitely better than trekking 200' out to the coop on a nasty winter day.

Like yours, our birds lay nearly all winter long. The production barely drops at all. We do have to make sure to collect the eggs before they freeze though. I don't use light (because of the power situation) but the entire top side of the south-facing wall is wire rather than solid. They get regular natural light every day. It doesn't seem to slow them down any, and the Australorps are also pretty heat-tolerant. They're an Australian hybrid from an Orpington.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 3:43PM
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I've had peafowl for years, probably 15 years. At one time, in Lawton, I was incubating the eggs and selling chicks for $25, older sexed juveniles for $50. They're my favorite bird. I guess I just don't mind the noise because gunieas make me laugh and their noise doesn't bother me, either.
One of my little Old English Bantam roosters, 7 weeks old, stood on the edge of the garden yesterday and tried to crow. Little squirt! It just cracked me up, it was such a pathetic sound!
We had so many pheasant and canadian geese when I was growing up in CO. When I was in the Air Force in WY, I hit a pheasant on the highway and it shattered the windshield on the Air Force suburban. Scared the heck out of my commander and I!
I used to have a big wild turkey flock when I lived between Hominy and Cleveland. They really like round bales and woody areas. Ft. Sill has a lot, too, in more remote areas.
I'd heard the fire ants were killing off the quail but don't know if it's true.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 6:57PM
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