Using Science To Raise The Perfect Porterhouse Ira Flatow and guests discuss the science of producing perfect steaks--from how genes affect tenderness and marbling, to how grass and grain affect the type of fat in a cut of beef. Plus, a look at how modern cowboys manage the range, using computer models and satellite imaging.

Using Science To Raise The Perfect Porterhouse

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It's grilling season in most of the rest of the United States, and we're broadcasting live from San Antonio, Texas, where it's always grilling season out here. A state - and it's also a state where a lot of those steaks come from. Texas has the most beef cattle in the U.S., some five million head.

And, of course, you've seen them on TV and in the movies, but there is a lot you think you know about beef on the hoof, but you don't. Do you know about the beef technology that goes into producing that perfect porterhouse with just the right tenderness, fat, rich, beefy flavor, cherry-red coloring? Well, I'm getting hungry just talking about it.

The point is it's not as simple as just putting cattle out to pasture. Like most things, the cattle business is high-tech these days, and this hour we're going to be talking about the science of ranching. And we won't be taking your calls today, but if you're here in the audience, don't be shy. Please step up to the mics in the auditorium, and we'll take your questions.

You can also email us at That's a new, easier email address: Or, of course, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And if you want more information, go to our website at, where you can leave us - join the topic of discussion over there.

Let me introduce my guests. Clay Mathis is director of the King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management at Texas A&M University in Kingsville. He's here with us at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, where we're broadcasting from. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Mathis.

CLAY MATHIS: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you. Chris Kerth is an associate professor of meat science in the Animal Science Department of Texas A&M in College Station. He's also here with us at the Witte Museum. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHRIS KERTH: Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Sara Faivre-Davis is co-owner of Wild Type Ranch in Cameron, Texas. She's also a former professor of genetics at Texas A&M, and she joins us from KAMU. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Faivre-Davis.

SARAH FAIVRE-DAVIS: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Let's talk first about the typical cattle ranch in Texas. Clay, you know, from the images we have on the old Westerns an on TVs, we have cattle ranches that look like the Ponderosa, right, thousands and thousands of head of cattle. Is that the typical cattle ranch?

MATHIS: Well, there are certainly ranches that are very large in Texas, but there's also a lot of ranches that are much smaller. So we have quite an extreme, from ranches that might have 20 or 30 head, to those that have 10,000, 15,000 heads.

FLATOW: But what would the average size then be of all the...

MATHIS: In Texas, the average size is probably - if we look at a ranch in terms of beef cow numbers - probably between 30 and 50 head, close to 40.

FLATOW: Forty head of cattle. We - that's what I'm saying. We think that they're all these giant ranches, but they're not. I see you're shaking your head, Chris. This is true.


FLATOW: Yeah. Part of your - let me ask you this, because I think this is great because you have - part of your job is something we would all like to have, and that is analyzing the aroma of steak.


FLATOW: You sniff the steak?

KERTH: I sniff the steak.


FLATOW: Tell us how that works.

KERTH: Well, we actually analyze all methods of sensory analysis of meat, and so we don't only get to sniff the steak, we also get to eat the steak. And so it is one of the greatest jobs in the world.


FLATOW: I won't comment on your size, if you have to be a big person to eat the steak or not.

KERTH: Not at all.

FLATOW: Not at all. Tell us - but there is a science in the aroma, right? You're doing it more than just to smell the steak. There's a test that you do.

KERTH: Yes, because many of the other things, you know, we can look at a steak. We have instruments that can measure the color, the tenderness, how much juice there is in it. But flavor and aroma is something very different. It's very difficult to have a machine that can measure that.

And so we really have to rely on our own noses, and it's very, very complex. And so now we've kind of taken it to the next level, and many years have used technology to measure the aromas and flavors, and now we're trying to kind of bring that up to the new age and apply it to current technology in that there are so many different new frontiers in meat, in trying to create that better steak.

And so we can use this machine to actually separate and individually identify every single chemical compound in that aroma and actually smell each one of those individual compounds to see which one is causing the good aroma and which is causing the bad aroma.

FLATOW: So you put the steak in a jar?


FLATOW: And then you put what in there to separate - how do you separate all the different aromas out of it?

KERTH: Well, there's just - it's simply a little fiber that is coated in a coating that absorbs all of the aromas, the volatile compounds that are coming off of that steak. And we let it sit there and absorb those aromas, and then once it does, we put it on this machine, a GC mass spec, which many people have seen on "CSI" or forensic shows like that.

FLATOW: Of course, a mass spectrometer.

KERTH: Exactly.

FLATOW: And it analyzes all the different - lines show up, or it's...

KERTH: Right. It separates out one, big aroma into all of its independent compounds and will identify them specifically, draw a structure for you. And at the same time, we have somebody sitting there smelling those compounds as they're coming off this machine. And so we can identify the exact aroma with what exact chemical compounds that is.

FLATOW: And once you know that, how does it help you build a better steak?

KERTH: Well, then it becomes the chemistry of sensory science. And you go back, and you identify these chemical compounds and know that, well, this one is a result of a fat breaking down, or it may be a result of an amino acid from a protein in a sugar combining and being heated.

And so we know kind of the chemistry of the aromas, and we can backtrack. And it is the "CSI" of beef aroma to find where the culprit is or where the good guy is.

FLATOW: Can you actually package the aroma in a spray can?

KERTH: Absolutely.


FLATOW: You can?


FLATOW: And just spray it on what?

KERTH: Well, to give you an example, the company that manufactured and designed this particular machine did a segment for Mike Rowe and "Dirty Jobs" where the recreated the odor of Mike Rowe's boots by taking the very specific chemical compounds that were being smelled and combined them to recreate that aroma. So it's absolutely doable.

FLATOW: Wow. Dr. Faivre-Davis, you used to be a genetics professor, and now you have a ranch. So tell us what DNA has to do with raising cattle.

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Well, as a geneticist, I'd have to tell you that it has a lot to do. We start with the best genetics, and then do our best not to screw them up before they get to the plate.


FLATOW: So you test the DNA of the herd, then?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Most of our animals are DNA-tested. Enough of our cow herd has been tested now that we only test new bulls coming in, or new animals. But we test for marbling, tenderness, docility, longevity, feed efficiency.

FLATOW: So you can do sort of a DNA profile of what makes a good piece of beef on the hoof and know what it is by just testing the DNA of the cattle?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Well, we know a good chunk of it, and then there's a whole lot of experience. And we do our own taste-testing, as well.

FLATOW: And so then if you have - if you have new cows or cattle being raised and coming in, you say well, from the DNA testing, we know this is not a good candidate to be, you know, to be used as a - for food, and you don't use that cow or that steer for food?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Well, actually, the DNA testing, we select the best ones to save to breed for the ones that will produce the food next year. The ones that kind of fall out are the ones we eat this year. So next year's steaks are always better than this year's.


FLATOW: Of course. Of course. That's what we mean by aged beef, right? No. So then, instead of visually culling a herd like you would do in, quote, "the old days" and looking for the cattle, you can do that DNA-wise in saying this is the one we want to breed.

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Yes and no. When I started out, I was - I'm such a data geek, and we collected data and had DNA tests and everything, but I learned that those old cattlemen know an awful lot, and sometimes we professors don't know everything. So we use a whole lot of visual appraisal along with the DNA. So there's some things that DNA still doesn't tell us.

FLATOW: Clay, you're shaking your head up and down.

MATHIS: Yeah, that's right. You know, we can do a lot of genetic testing, and we can try to understand as much as we can about the genetic makeup. The environment still plays a huge part in how these animals ultimately turn out.

There's things that you can tell with genetic tests and things that you can't determine. We can't tell how structurally sound an animal is by a genetic test. So, you know, an animal has got to be able to walk around. It's got to be structurally sound and those types of things. So visual appraisal is still a major component. We're just learning more and more and more by all the technology and learning about these different genes and describing these traits with those genes.

So it's still the same package. We just know more on the variation now than we did before.

FLATOW: You know, and speaking of now versus before, what kind of technology do you use now on the modern cattle ranch that you didn't do before, technology things?

MATHIS: Well, you know, there's lots of technologies that have been used in the past, like the windmill and how it opened up waters to lands in the West. But there's other technologies. The Internet is used for information all the time.

We have the ability to do thing with simple things like Excel. We can model some things better than we could in the past. And so we have better decision-making skills, because we can interpret more information at one time now. But still, it still comes back to a balance of a lot of complexities at one time to be able to really manage a ranch.

FLATOW: Can you put a GPS tag on the cattle and find out where they're roaming?

MATHIS: Actually, from a research standpoint, that's done quite a lot to discover what's causing some cattle to graze farther away from water sources than others. How well are they using the pastures more uniformly? So there's research done.

Now, it's very expensive technology. It's certainly not an application on a normal working ranch. But it does help us get an insight into how these cattle are traveling in different ranches.

FLATOW: Because I know they put these electronic chips on potato chips and things like - RFI chips and things like that to follow where they've gone. I would imagine it's an easy thing to do, possibly, with cattle.

MATHIS: Technologically, it's there. It's just very expensive for an application for a ranch.

FLATOW: And I guess if your ranch is only 30, 40, 50 cattle - cows or bulls - then that's going to be expensive to sort of do that sort of thing.

MATHIS: Well, that's true, especially one of these units may cost two to $3,000.

FLATOW: Is that right? Never mind.


FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about raising cattle with Clay Mathis, Chris Kerth and Sara Faivre-Davis. Our number is - we're not going to be taking calls today. So there's no phone number to call. But we have microphones here in the auditorium. So please step up to the mic, and please give us your opinion. We're going to be back after this short break. Stay with us. Don't go away.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about all the science that goes into making great steaks. We're here in San Antonio, Texas, with my guests: Clay Mathis, director of the King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management at Texas A&M, Chris Kerth, associate professor of meat science in the Animal Science Department of Texas A&M, and that's in College Station, and Sara Faivre-Davis, co-owner of the Wild Type Ranch in Cameron, Texas, also a former professor of genetics at Texas A&M.

If you'd like to ask a question, our microphones are open for you in the audience. And we won't be taking any calls on the phones today. Dr. Faivre-Davis, can you actually tell what genes are in a steak that makes the meat tender, or what genes are in a cow that make - that create the tenderness in beef?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: The technology that we use for DNA testing is genetic markers. So for the most part, we haven't identified exactly what gene or the mechanism that contributes to whatever trait we're looking at. So we're just kind of looking at these roadmaps.

And they're specific to the breed that we're looking in. So we raise primarily angus and red angus, and we know in these - I send my DNA samples off, and the lab tests them and says, you know, these guys have the favorable genes for marbling and not so many good genes for tenderness, or give us a profile across all the traits.

FLATOW: Chris Kerth, how do you - is there a scientific method, besides just feeling the beef with your hands, to measure tenderness?

KERTH: Yeah, absolutely. And we do that, and it's a well-proven technique where, really, what you do is you take - it's a machine called a sheer machine that has a knife on it roughly the sharpness of a butter knife, and it's attached to a scale that measures how much force it takes to cut through a piece of meat.

And obviously, the lower the sheer value, then the more tender the piece of meat. So we use that information. We age the meat, and we can, with a machine, get an objective measure of how tough or how tender a piece of meat is.

FLATOW: Interesting. So it's that simple?


FLATOW: It's a butter knife with a weight on it.


KERTH: In the simplest of terms. And then we, you know, we use more technological methods to see, you know, why a piece of meat is more tender, because we obviously like to duplicate that. And so it does go back all the way to things like the genetic markers and so forth.

FLATOW: What did - Clay, what are cattle fed on?

MATHIS: Well, you know, on these ranches, cattle eat grass.

FLATOW: Grass-fed steer beef? They eat grass.

MATHIS: Cattle eat grass. Cattle eat grass. Also, when we get farther along in the production system, a lot of the times, that's when the cattle will move to confinement, and they're hand-fed lots of grains, as well.

FLATOW: Sure. And so they - but they spend most of their time just grazing on the grass?

MATHIS: Most of it. Yes.

FLATOW: Wow. I guess we - all we see in the movies and TV are these giant feed lots where the cattle are just getting fed.

MATHIS: That's certainly - that's part of the industry. We try to put as much gain on those animals and allow them to gain as much as we can before they move into that stage of finishing, where we can get the nice grain-fed flavors that come out with grain finishing.

FLATOW: And what is your feeling about putting antibiotics into the food or finishing cattle with that?

MATHIS: Well, when cattle become sick, we certainly need to rely on antibiotics, because it's our job to make sure that they stay healthy, that we can help them recover from that. So that's a really, really important component of treating those sick animals.

FLATOW: But as a preventive, we keep hearing that, you know, these antibiotics are being put in just to make them bigger, fatter, but they may not be needed. And then they find their way, and we have disease-resistant antibiotics and things like that.

MATHIS: Well, there are times, especially with animals when they first arrive and they're co-mingled with other animals. So there's a little bit of stress associated with the move, just like if we were to move from one place to the next.

In those times, a lot of times there will be some low levels of antibiotics that are fed so that we can avoid the sickness in those animals that might occur otherwise.

FLATOW: Sara, any follow-up from you?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Well, I operate in a niche market. So we do direct sales. And we are completely pasture-raised. So our cattle stay on grass all of their life. I'm not adherent to a label. So my environment doesn't allow me to produce choice grade beef, because I won't cut a steak off an animal that isn't going to grade choice.

So we do feed a little bit of grain when our cattle are not gaining enough to give us the choice grade. Our stance on antibiotics, again, if we have a sick animal, we will treat that animal, because I'd rather treat the animal than have it suffer or send it to the sale barn because I treated it and it doesn't fit my label.

But our stance is if we - our environment is causing enough stress to the animals that they respond to a routine antibiotic, then we would try to reduce the stress in the environment. So we don't ever use prophylactic antibiotics.

FLATOW: All right. Let me go to the questions in our audience, here. Yes, sir.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN: Hi. My name is Christopher Brown. I live here in San Antonio, Texas. My question has to deal predominately with water. Bear County, and I'm sure most of Texas, is under drought conditions. Bear County is also under some pretty stringent water restrictions. So I guess my question has to deal with - I was wondering if any of our guests could cover how the cattle industry deals with drought conditions and the extreme amount of water it takes to raise cattle.

And also, what is the industry doing as a whole to perhaps reduce the amount of water used to raise cattle and still produce quality beef? Thank you.

FLATOW: All right. Clay, do you want to answer that first?

MATHIS: Well, sure. The first part of it, with regard to drought, you know, the first things that happens in a drought is we know that there's not as much forage produced on the range lands. And so the response to that is you have to find ways to reduce the need for forage.

And so you can do that by removing some of the cattle. Maybe you go from - or reduce your herd by 20 percent to respond to that drought. Another option is is you could purchase outside feed and try to feed that and reduce the demand to forage. That's also very expensive.

So those are some of the things that we try to do to respond to drought because one of the important things is we certainly don't ever want to ask more from the range lands than it can give up and over-graze that forage. And people are very conscientious about that stewardship of the land.

With regard to water needs, you know, water is the lifeblood of ranching. We've got to have water for animals to drink, and so that's critical. They have to always have water, and they do. And they do, because we remove them if we have no water.

As far as the efficiency of use of that water, if you look - and especially if you go west of San Antonio, and you look where there's - you see windmills in a lot of places, and you see storage tanks, it used to be that these storage tanks were open-topped. You see much more of these storage tanks where they're closed-topped now. And those closed tops means that we don't have the evaporation, because you can lose a lot of water in evaporation.

So there's a tremendous interest in trying to protect that use of water, making sure that we don't use more than we need, making sure that we can - don't have too much runoff with water and collect some of that water before it runs downstream too fast and - I'm talking about small, you know, five acres. I have a little pond. You retain some of that water so it stays in the soil there, as well. There's lots of things that we do.

FLATOW: Sara, how would you deal with this? How would you answer that question?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Very much consistent with what was just said. We use - have a lot of tanks. We try to maintain the buffer around those tanks, try not to let the cattle get the water tanks too muddy, and for those who don't live in Texas, tanks are ponds.


FAIVRE-DAVIS: And we have just run piping out, because water quality is incredibly important. So we are now piping water down to some of our lower pastures so we can continue to rotate and not overgraze certain parts of our ranch and get the cattle access to grass where - the little grass we have.

FLATOW: Is it possible to change the kind of cattle you have that are more drought-resistant, that will survive better? Can you breed better cattle? You know, if you know that this is - maybe it's climate change. Maybe you're going to have 30 years of a drought, or it's going to be dry - drier than it used to be, and you want to survive as cattlemen, bring different cattle in? Chris, I see you're shaking your head on that. Is that possible?

KERTH: Yeah. And you see that all over the world, where the type of cattle in a particularly geographic region are, you know, adapted - have adapted themselves or are managed for that geographic region. And so in this part of this country, we see a lot of Brahmin cattle that have the big humps, because they're very resistant to drought and so forth. So that's a big part of managing the environment, is finding the animals that fit the environment.

FLATOW: So you might cross-breed the Brahmin with a different...

KERTH: Yes, to get all of the best traits. So we can get a little bit of the drought tolerance and mix it in with other quality traits and mothering traits and kind of take the best of all of them.

FLATOW: Is anybody preparing for the fact that this might be a longer-range kind of drought? Clay?

MATHIS: You know, this is part of ranching in this part of the world. We know that droughts will come, and then we will have wet years in between, and there will be another drought. It's always on the forefront of a manager's mind of how am I going to respond to the next drought, and do it in a cost-effective manner that's going to be good for the land, good for the animals.

FLATOW: Let's go to the gentlemen here at the microphone. Hi.

LAMAR SAWYER: Hi, Lamar Sawyer(ph), San Antonio, Texas. What's the most prominent breed of beef cattle in the United States? And have any particular breeds been developed for use in unique environments like Texas?

FLATOW: Clay, you want...

MATHIS: I'd be glad to respond to it. In general, in the United States, if you look at the number of, the types of bulls and the greatest - the breed that has the most bulls that are sold, it's really - it's the Angus breed. But there are lots of different breeds out there, and there's lots of variation within those breeds. You know, the trick is how do you find the right breed or mix of breeds that's going to most efficiently or have a cow that's going to most efficiently harvest the forage there and produce a calf.

And so, you know, that's the focus is, is trying to find that balance, and it's different in different parts of the country. So there is no perfect breed. It depends on where you are and what matches your environment the best and then what type of bulls do you breed to those cows to produce the type of quality product that's going to satisfy consumers.

FLATOW: Chris, just to get back to talking about grazing with cattle, and we talked about grass fed and then lot fed. Is there much of a difference when you grass-feed a cow versus the grain-fed beef? What's the difference in the meat?

KERTH: Yes. There is a number of differences that you see in the meat. The first thing is the lean tends to be a little darker. The fat will have a little bit more yellow in it from the carotenes in the forage. The tenderness just tends to be more variable because the forage is not as consistently available, and the same type of forage is not always the same. And the flavor certainly is going to differ because, you know, the things that are included in the diet have a direct impact on the things that we have in the portion that we get that aroma from, especially the fats. And so it has a difference in flavor as well.

FLATOW: Can you breed cattle or feed them something that gives them a higher level of, let's say, omega-3 fat and...

KERTH: We can but...

FLATOW: ...better fat?

KERTH:'s a little bit more difficult in cattle because they're ruminants, and so their own stomachs tend to make the kind of fats that they need. But we do - we can increase, for instance, omega-3s or CLAs, which are kind of popular in the media these days, but the types of differences that we get really don't have a significant nutritional difference in the amount that we see in the final product.

FLATOW: We're broadcasting from the Witte Museum in San Antonio this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, talking about cattle-raising and all kinds of aspects of what it is to be a cattle farmer and things that have to be done in this modern age of high technology on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here at the Witte. Let's go to the auditorium, next guest up there at the mic. Hi.

JENNIFER PEEL: Thank you. My name is Jennifer Peel, and I am from San Antonio. And although I'm currently a vegetarian, I'm a native Texan. So I grew up eating lots of beef, and I have a lot of beef-eating friends and family still. So I'm curious you were talking about the nature versus nurture, obviously, with being able to select cattle based on their DNA, but there's lots of other issues, you know, what they're fed. And I'm just curious. Is there any evidence to suggest that animals or specifically cattle that are treated more humanely actually make for better steaks?

FLATOW: Sarah, do you want to answer that?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Oh. Animal welfare is one of the three founding principles of the ranch. When we make a management decision, it's based on product quality, animal welfare and environmental sustainability. And those aren't independent. So - and animals' innate docility affects its meat quality and its ability to grow and how the animal is handled really, especially close to the time that it's harvested, can have a dramatic impact on product quality.

FLATOW: So you don't want to stress...


FLATOW: You don't want to stress the animals is what you're saying.

FAIVRE-DAVIS: That's right. If it has a bad day on the way to the market, you're going to get a bad steak.

FLATOW: That should be on a bumper sticker someplace...


FLATOW: ...I think. Bad day - and so you - it actually does show up. How is it - how does it show up in the steak? When you say a bad steak, what does that mean?

FAIVRE-DAVIS: Well, an animal that's stressed very close to the time that it's harvested or slaughtered will have a dark color, and the meat will tend to be drier and tougher. It just - it doesn't age well. You release all those adrenalin and all those other hormones associated with the flight response, and it negatively impacts the meat quality.

FLATOW: Is that like the old - there was an old saying about milk, you know, contented cows, milk from contented cows are better. That's the same sort of theory...

FAIVRE-DAVIS: I grew up...

FLATOW: ...that's going on.



FAIVRE-DAVIS: I grew up in a dairy farm, and we've got into big trouble if we chased the cows before they were milked.


FLATOW: Clay, did you want to...

MATHIS: Well, I think that it's really important to understand that if we look at the whole beef industry, you know, it's an industry of pride and stewardship. It's pride and how the stewardship of the land. It's stewardship of the livestock, of the wildlife that are associated with that land. And so that's all very, very important. We know that the better we can treat these animals, the better that they're going to perform, and so that's why there's so much focus on the industry and trying to do things in ways that are going to be relatively low stress, and because if we do, these cattle do better.

So there's a limit to that because we can get to the point where they're - were we have - where it's completely not cost effective. It's an extremely low-margin business, anyways, where we're looking at really maybe zero to 1 percent on average return on investment in these operations. We have to keep that in mind. But animal welfare and the way we take care of these animals is critically important to the industry, and they're very focused on this.

FLATOW: Yeah. I'm reminded that the recent film about Temple Grandin, Sarah, that showed her work...


FLATOW: ...on designing the slaughterhouses to make things less stressful for the cattle. That kind of stuff...

FAIVRE-DAVIS: And, yeah, that will - one for the cattle and one for the slaughterhouse as well.

FLATOW: And are people always thinking of new ways to, you know, to relax these - the cattle out there, yeah?

KERTH: This industry tries every day to find ways to...

FLATOW: They play music or classical music or anything like that.


FLATOW: I mean, I'm sort of semi-serious about that sort of thing. Chris, the cattle react to music, stuff like that?

KERTH: Well, I don't know specifically about music, but, you know, that's, I think, one of the misconceptions is that, you know, there is - the producers out there have no benefit in having the animals handled or in an environment that is anything but the most humane because, again, the more relaxed and the more stress free these animals are, the better production that they have, the more efficient they are in - it's nothing but good comes out of a stress-free environment.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back and then take more questions to - from our audience. I'd like thank Chris Kerth, Texas A&M, College Station, and Clay Mathis of Texas A&M, Kingsville, for taking time to be with us today. Thank you for talking to us about the cattle industry. We're going to take a break and come back and talk about some more about cattle. We're going to talk about the history of the Texas longhorn. It's very interesting genetic history of Texas longhorn, and we'll talk about that when we get back. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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