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Calming the chaos

As the 2020 calving season approaches on their northwest Missouri farm, Matt and Belinda Hess feel a mixture of an­ticipation and apprehension.

After all, last year was rough. Bitter cold, heavy snow and persistent mud in late winter and early spring created a stressful time for their newborns to arrive. When the first calf hit the frozen ground on the Hesses’ Maryville farm March 3, 2019, the high temperature was only 12 degrees and dipped below zero that night.

“We both love calving season because there’s nothing better than seeing that new baby born and then bucking and kicking around,” Belinda said. “But we sure are hoping this year is easier. There was about a 10-day window last March that was really, really cold, and if you didn’t catch the calves when they were born, they weren’t going to survive—it didn’t matter if it was 10 at night or 4 in the morning. Neither of us wants to deal with that again.”

The Hesses aren’t alone. Many beef producers across the Midwest struggled during the spring 2019 calving season. The difficult weather began to affect cattle the previous fall, which was unusually wet, and many cows entered winter with less-than-ideal body condition. By the time their calves were born, colostrum qual­ity was compromised. Poor nutrition coupled with the harsh environment meant the new­borns had an uphill battle from the start.

“We consider ourselves extremely lucky,” Belinda said. “We had a neighbor up the road here who calves out about 350-400 head every year. He lost over 70 calves last year because of the weather.”

On Hess Farms, the 80-head herd typically calves in a two-month window in March and April. During the worst of the weather last year, however, 33 babies were born in about 11 days—stretching Belinda and Matt to their limits.

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “Our cows are about 13 miles up the road, and we were checking them every three or four hours. We were bring­ing every calf into the barns, trying to warm them up and work with them to keep them alive. It was unreal, the circumstances we were dealing with.”

As the Hesses shared their frustrations with others in the close-knit ag community, a friend and fellow cattle producer, Mace Coston, encouraged them to try MFA’s Shield Plus. This proprietary product, administered as an oral drench, contains concentrated colostrum extract to help ensure newborn calves get optimum levels of essential nutrients. It also provides probiotics to improve gut health, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids as a quick source of energy and therapeutic levels of vitamins A, D and E to help prevent oxidative stress.

“He said, ‘You guys need to go get this stuff from MFA. I’ve never seen anything like it,’” Belinda said. “So, we called up to our local MFA here in Maryville and asked them to get us some. Even though we aren’t afraid to try new technologies and advancements, I admit we were a little skeptical. But we were also ready to try anything at that point.”

Shield Plus proved its value right off the bat. Soon after they’d gotten a bottle, Matt discovered a newborn bull calf, face down in the mud, nearly lifeless. The Hesses had little hope it would survive.

“This thing looked like it had about 10% chance of mak­ing it,” Matt said. “You could tell it was breathing, but it was covered in mud and eyes completely rolled back. We got it in to the pickup with the heater on, and I gave it a couple of squirts of Shield in the mouth. Instantly, this lifeless calf kicked. Just unbelievable. Both of us were amazed.”

“It was to the point to where we had to decide: do we fight for this one or just put it out of its misery?” Belinda added. “That’s the hardest decision any farmer has to make. For us that day, we had the Shield, so we wanted to try to save that calf. Neither one of us likes to give up. But I said it would take a miracle to make this calf live. Actually, it just took some Shield. From that point on, I was a believer.”

That calf not only survived but thrived—and so did 83 other calves born on Hess Farms last spring. They only lost two calves; one was premature, and the other was a twin. Most of them received a dose of Shield Plus in that critical first 12 to 24 hours to make sure they had enough energy to nurse their mothers.

“They need that colostrum, but a lot of times you can’t get the calf going, especially when they get cold and chilled,” Be­linda said. “We tried to catch every calf and give it a shot of Shield. It gave them enough gumption to get up, eat well and jump around like little calves will do. You could take a calf that didn’t want to even move, give it Shield, and the next thing you knew, you couldn’t hold onto it. It’s like liquid gold.”

The all-natural blend of ingredients in Shield Plus stimu­lates the immune system and increases appetite, said Mike Spidle, MFA Incorporated strategic feed specialist. Prebiotic fiber feeds beneficial microbes in newborn digestive tracts, while probiotics supply “good” bacteria and yeasts. Botanical extracts also provide antimicrobial activity against invading bad bacteria, and high-quality immunoglobulins reduce fever and inflammation.

“You can’t be sure that a cow’s colostrum is giving a calf what it needs, and you can’t know the gut environment of every animal in your herd,” Spidle said, “but you can make sure every baby gets the same start to life.”

Shield Plus also has spray-dried egg antibodies that help combat scours, a benefit the Hesses can confirm.

“A lot of people had scour problems last year, and we didn’t have any,” Matt said. “I firmly believe it’s because Shield kept their digestive system healthier. I wouldn’t want to go through another calving season without it.”

Ultimately, he said, Shield Plus helped calm their chaotic calving season, which immediately precedes the spring planting rush on Hess Farms. Row crops make up the majority of the operation, with Matt and Belinda working full time on the farm together with help from their children, Jerrica, 14, Grayson, 12, and Triston, 9. The family raises some 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans in addition to their 80 head of cattle.

“It would be hard to be a farmer today without loving the challenge, because everything is a challenge,” Matt said. “And that’s why Shield worked so great for us. As intensified as we are in row crop, Shield is what helps us take care of the cows. With the problems we ran into last year, it got the calves going and alleviated a lot of our worry.”

Belinda, who is active in her community and on social media, continually shares the challenges and successes of her family’s agricultural endeavors with fellow farmers and the non-farming public alike. She considers Shield Plus one of the success sto­ries, and she’s been spreading the word to other cattle producers in hopes of helping them experience its benefits.

“Farmers, we have to rely on each other,” she said. “We need to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. Sometimes, that’s the only way people find out about things like Shield. Just in the last month, I’ve had three guys reach out and ask what the product was that we liked so much last year. I tell them ‘Shield,’ and send them straight to MFA. It’s definitely something every cattle producer should have on hand.”

For more information on MFA Shield Technology, talk with the livestock specialists at your local MFA or AGChoice or visit online at mfa-inc.com/products/feed/shield.

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In This Feb Today's Farmer Magazine


Show of strength
Champion swine exhibitor Treyton Burchette won’t let epilepsy hinder his success
by Allison Jenkins

The 1,000 variables
Risk-management strategy puts knowledge, know-how in growers’ hands
by Blake Thomas

Precision partners
MFA teams up with equipment dealer to offer irrigation solutions with soil moisture probes
by Kerri Lotven

Notice of district meetings of MFA Incorporated - OFFICIAL NOTICE

Looking at 2019 with ‘realism’
Weather extremes, marketplace uncertainties dominate discussions at MFA’s Annual Meeting
by Allison Jenkins

The year in review
Opportunities and challenges of 2019 - Click to view graphic

Prized advice
Mefford named top Certified Crop Adviser
by Allison Jenkins


Country Corner
Collecting your thoughts
by Allison Jenkins

Representing ag is a business requirement
by Ernie Verslues

Native grasses can provide pasture peace of mind
Establishing warm-season forage fields is a long-term solution for hay
by Landry Jones

Get ahead of fly season with pest-control plans
Multi-faceted approach is recommended to protect your livestock
by Dr. Jim White

The countdown begins for the Western Farm Show 2020
Agriculture atop the Capitol
Attracting agriculture students


Corn: Prices affected by trade, South American production
Soybeans: China purchases will be key market influences
Cattle: More meat in 2020
Wheat: Declining demand limits price strength


BUY, sell, trade



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Show of strength

Show stick in hand, 12-year-old Treyton Burchette skillfully guides his Berkshire hog with all the confidence of a seasoned livestock exhibitor. The young man exudes showmanship with his cowboy boots, blue jeans, button-down shirt and gleaming trophy belt buckle—his hard-earned award for win­ning Grand Champion Market Hog at the 2019 Benton County Fair in Benton­ville, Ark.

Trey’s parents, Eric and Jessica Burchette, observe proudly nearby. Big brother Tyler, 16, an accomplished livestock show­man himself, stands ready to assist if necessary.

There’s one other set of attentive eyes on Trey. His loyal service dog, Tosha, is keeping close watch with­out interfering in the show demo. The nearly 2-year-old chocolate lab is Trey’s constant companion, best friend and fierce protector, trained to get help and keep him safe from seizures caused by a rare form of epilepsy.

“Treyton was born totally healthy and then had his first seizure at 2 years, 4 months, in my arms,” Jessica said. “At first, doctors told us it was probably febrile, because he had a fever at the time, and we’d never see them again. But he had another one, and they kept getting worse. Nobody could figure out what was wrong. They couldn’t get the seizures to stop, and he wasn’t respond­ing to medications. He went from totally healthy, meeting milestones, no issues whatsoever, to this.”

After being referred to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, Trey was diagnosed with Doose Syndrome, or MAE (myoclonic astatic epilepsy). The condition is so rare that it only affects one out of every 1,000 children with epileptic disorders. Char­acterized by frequent generalized seizures, Doose Syndrome has no known cause and is often resistant to medication, making it difficult to control.

“He’s failed multiple types of treatments. We’ve been in nu­merous ambulance rides. We’ve been life-flighted,” Jessica said. “We’ve really been through the wringer with it. Last summer [2018], the doctors told us we’d run out of medicine options and were just going to have to roll with the seizures as they come.”

To help Trey cope with his condition, the neurologist recom­mended a seizure alert dog. The Burchettes embraced the idea, despite the fact that the price would be about $15,000.

“At least if he was going to seize, we wanted him to be safe as possible,” Jessica said. “Having a service dog gives him as much normalcy as he could have with his condition.”

The family was connected with On Command Canine Training Center in Joplin, Mo., where Trey met Tosha. She was 4 months old at the time and just getting started with her training.

“They put me in a room and said they were going to bring in the puppies one by one,” Trey said. “They said the dog would choose me. I wouldn’t choose the dog. They’d bring in a puppy, and it would play with me for a little while, and then go play with my mom or dad or my brother. But when they brought Tosha in, she came straight to me, and in five minutes, we were both asleep on each other.”

“The connection was unbelievable,” Jessica added.

Insurance doesn’t cover the cost of service dogs, so the com­munity did instead. Friends and neighbors in the Burchettes’ hometown of Gravette, Ark., hosted a chili supper and auction in October 2018 at their church, Harvest Baptist, raising more than enough money to bring Tosha home. More than 350 people attended the fundraiser, including members of their “show family” such as MFA Livestock Specialist Greg Davis.

“If there is a silver lining what Treyton has to go through, it’s seeing the love and support of the community that he has built around him,” Greg said. “We’re all blessed to know him. In his own way, he makes everyone around him better.”

With the cost covered and her training complete, Tosha joined the family last May and spent the summer traveling their show circuit, which includes county and regional fairs and cul­minates in October with the American Royal in Kansas City. The Burchette boys exhibit Berkshire and crossbred hogs, purchas­ing some of their animals from Eichorn Showpigs in Troy, Ohio, and raising some themselves.

Tosha also started fifth grade this past fall with Trey at Gravette Upper Elementary School. Classmates treat her “just like another kid,” Trey said. In fact, Tosha even had her “offi­cial” school photo taken for the yearbook along with her fellow students. The adorable pup’s portrait gained national notoriety when Principal Mandy Barrett shared it on social media. The post went viral and led to several stories on local and national television stations.

“This is Tosha—she is the Certified Service Dog for one of our fifth-grade students with seizures,” the post said. “She sat so nicely for her very first school pictures last week! We are proud of how well she has acclimated to the culture here at GUE...and how well our students have welcomed her into our family.”

Tosha is trained to sense when a seizure may be imminent. And when Trey had his first epileptic episode at school in November, Tosha did exactly what she was supposed to do— got an adult to help and then rushed back to her boy, nestling herself under his head to protect him from harm.

“She knows before I do if I’m going to have a seizure,” Trey said. “She’ll go find someone and kind of bump up against them, like almost knock them over, to let them know. Then she’ll come back to me and try to keep me from hitting a hard surface.”

That particular seizure lasted 32 minutes and ended in an ambulance ride to the hospital. Since then, the seizures have be­come worse and more frequent, making Tosha’s presence even more valuable. In December, the family had an extended stay at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock for more testing in hopes of a solution.

“We’ve learned to just take it one day at a time,” Jessica said. “It’s hard seeing him go through these and being able to do nothing. It breaks my mama heart.”

She said showing pigs is the perfect pastime for Trey, who can’t be cleared to play sports because of his seizures (even though he’d like to play football and basketball). Epilepsy hasn’t hindered the young man’s success in the show ring, and having Tosha to monitor him at the shows allows Mom and Dad to give him more freedom to “just be a kid.”

“He’s at the age where he likes to run and play with his friends, and Tosha will play, too,” Jessica said. “It’s peace of mind for me, knowing that he can go have fun, but if he seizes, she’s going to get an adult. All the families we show with are aware of his condition, and if Tosha comes up to them, they know something’s wrong.”

Trey has been showing pigs since age 5, when he entered his first show at the Benton County Fair. He’s following in the foot­steps of Tyler, who began showing in 4-H at age 9 and is now a sophomore and FFA member at Decatur High School. The collection of awards between the two brothers has been steadily growing ever since.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” Tyler said. “It means working with your pigs every day, any chance you get. But it’s worth it. And the friends you make are usually more lasting than the ones you make at school.”

Their parents are quick to point out that the boys have full responsibility for their livestock projects.

“We’ve been to shows where some of the kids don’t even know what their pigs are until they get there. That’s not teaching them anything,” Eric said. “With our kids, we put good pigs in their hands, and we provide them with good feed. The rest is up to them.”

At Greg’s recommendation, the family started using MFA’s new Ring Leader show diets last year. The results were exceptional, Eric said. Both Tyler and Trey won top placings at nearly every event they attended.

“We fed the Ring Leader without any additives or supplements,” Eric said. “We are definitely pleased with it. We did very well this year.”

The family is especially proud of their wins at the 2019 Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield, Mo., where Trey took home the Overall Supreme Champion title in both the junior and open shows. To win the premier award two days in a row—with two different judges—is quite an achievement, Greg points out, attributing Ring Leader’s high-quality nutrition and the Burchettes’ attention to high-quality swine genetics in creating this winning combination.

“They do a good job of picking good, sound pro­ductive pigs, and Ring Leader is going to give them the performance to go all the way,” Greg said. “It’s good-quality feed at a more affordable price than a lot of others on the market. And Ring Leader also has Shield Technology, which is important for keeping animals healthy when traveling the show circuit.”

This year, the Burchettes plan to attend some winter shows for the first time and compete at the World Pork Expo in Indianapolis in June. Their aggressive show schedule means a lot of travel and time away from home, but the family believes the benefits go well beyond belt buckles and trophies.

“Showing keeps us pretty busy, but it also keeps Trey and Tyler out of trouble, helps them build good relationships with other kids and gives us something to do as a family,” Eric said. “It also teaches them responsibility and that they have to work hard to get results. Those are the kinds of lessons that will serve them well in life.”

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Looking at 2019 with 'realism'

"Unique" was the best way to describe the 2019 fiscal year for both MFA and its members, said MFA’s Chief Financial Officer Karen White during the cooperative’s annual meeting Dec. 3 in Columbia. More than 550 delegates, em­ployees and special guests attended the meeting, which featured exhibits by MFA’s operating divisions, Missouri Department of Agriculture and MFA Oil.

From weather extremes to trade disruptions, agriculture has faced a long list of challenges over the past 18 months, White said. In particular, severe swings from drought to flooding are to blame for reduced yields, prevented planting and delayed harvests—all of which negatively impacted sales for MFA in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2019.

Consolidated sales reached $1.1 billion, but the overall result was a pre-tax loss of $10.1 million for 2019. Despite the loss, White pointed out, MFA’s balance sheet remains strong, and the cooperative has a favorable budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

“Yes, this was a unique year, but as a company, we weathered the storm,” White said. “It dinged us up a little bit, but we are prepared and excited about fiscal 2020. Our plan reflects earnings returning to 2018 levels, a goal we believe we can achieve, if Mother Nature gives us the opportunity.”

Reviewing financial performance by category, White reported that 63 million bushels of grain were sold in 2019, a 23% decrease from the previous fiscal year and a direct result of below-normal harvest in the fall of 2018. She pointed out that grain volume was similar to 2016 when the region also experienced drought.

“Harvest reports for this fall have been encouraging, with yields in most areas better than expected,” White said. “Unfortunately, the number of prevented plant­ing acres this past spring means we will likely not see grain bushels returning to 2018 levels.”

Field crop sales—which include plant foods, seed and crop protection—were $565 million, an 8% decrease from fiscal 2018. White said each of these product areas had reduced sales in 2019, with fertiliz­er tonnage especially impacted by wet conditions. MFA locations that service river bottom areas where much of the prevented planting acres occurred expe­rienced the largest drop in field crop sales, she added.

Livestock supply sales also decreased by 13%, totaling $151 million in fiscal 2019. This category includes feed, animal health and farm supply sales.

“The negative effects of the 2018 drought on livestock sales included a reduction in the beef herd in parts of MFA’s trade territory and a shortage of hay, which pushed producers to sell calves off the cow,” White explained. “In addition, many producers trended toward lower-priced alternatives with com­modity blends and away from our branded feeds.”

Total margins and operating revenues were $203 million, a decrease of 9% directly correlated to lower sales volumes, White said. Joint venture earnings were $1.1 million compared to $2.3 million last year. Working capital was $67 million at fiscal year end, down $16 million from 2018.

Total assets at the end of August were up slightly to $510 million, due mainly to an increase in inventory levels driven by lower sales volume. White also reported that MFA Incorporated has long-term debt of $77 million, including a term loan with CoBank and the MFA Bond Program. Total net worth decreased by approximately $10 million to $155 million, which is still a healthy number, White said.

“Over the last several years we have worked hard to build a strong balance sheet so that when we have unfortunate circumstances like this year, we can weather the losses,” she said.

White concluded her report by announcing that MFA will return 100% of its Domestic Production Activities Deduction (DPAD) this year, estimated at $7.5 million for fiscal 2019. This deduction is available for farmers who sold grain to MFA. In prior years, MFA has retained part of the DPAD dollars to reduce taxes.


In his address to the membership, MFA Board Chairman Wayne Nichols also acknowledged the challenges farmers and the agricultural industry continue to face but expressed optimism that MFA is positioned for a more positive financial year ahead.

“Management presented the board with a very detailed business plan for this coming year. The plan reflects positive earnings for MFA,” Nichols said. “The board believes it is essential that MFA Incorporated remains profitable for today’s farmers and those of tomorrow.”

The Pomona, Mo., cattleman who represents District 13 on the MFA board also commended the company’s employees for their efforts to serve customers during trying times.

“The excessive rains and floods compressed delivery of products and services into a tight window,” Nichols said. “It was wait, wait, wait and then run for long hours to try to catch up. It took some creativity at times, but MFA employees put in the hours and team­work to get things done.”

MFA Chief Executive Officer Ernie Verslues reinforced the importance of serving members, even under such extreme circumstances. He pointed out that the biggest challenges farmers face—trade and weather—are outside their control, and said he expected the audience’s attitudes during the annual meeting presentations to range from pessimism to optimism and perhaps settle on “realism.”

“Throughout our long history, MFA has enjoyed the peaks and endured the valleys associated with agriculture and its cycles,” Verslues said. “That experience has trained us to strengthen the organization in good times and be prepared for diffi­cult times. I don’t have to remind you that we are currently in the valley, but our goal of building the balance sheet has paid off during the last down cycle. Our balance sheet is solid despite this year’s loss.”

Verslues said the adversity of the past year shouldn’t overshadow MFA’s positive accomplishments in 2019. He praised employees for getting product applied when conditions allowed, keeping business go­ing even when weather tried to derail sales, finding alternative options for unloading and transporting plant food and helping with sandbagging efforts during flooding in many parts of the trade area.

MFA’s organizational restructuring also was a key high­light of 2019, Verslues said, with initiatives to intensify the company’s sales focus, improve operational efficiencies and strengthen relationships with members and customers. In 2020 and beyond, he said, MFA will continue providing innovative products and services, making investments in rolling stock and facilities and giving employees opportunities for training and education.

“I don’t question our efforts during fiscal 2019. Unfortunately, the opportunities just weren’t there,” Verslues said. “Our trade area was hit by more challenges than most anywhere in the United States. It would have been easy to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. But we didn’t. We looked for opportunities, because of our customer focus and because we care about more than just selling you products and services. Isn’t that what a cooperative is all about?”


Uncertainty in global markets was the topic tackled by guest speaker Seth Meyer, associate director of the Food and Agriculture Policy Institute at the University of Missouri, who delved deeper into the trade dispute between the U.S. and China. Soybean sales are most affected, he said, with total U.S. soy­bean exports to China falling by 22.8 million tons from 2017 to 2019. During that time, the average farm price also decreased nearly $1 per bushel.

Even if a trade deal is reached, uncertainty about exports will continue into 2020, he predicted. A drastic reduction in China’s hog production due to African swine fever has reduced overall demand for soybeans but could open up the market for the U.S. to increase pork exports.

“A trade agreement doesn’t instantly mean we go back to large volumes of Chinese trade in soybeans,” Meyer said. “It isn’t clear that there’s a quick way out of this. Maybe a deal will bring some pork sales back, but the bottom line is that we have a lot of demand uncertainty.”

While estimated national 2019 yields for corn and soybeans are the lowest since 2013, FAPRI’s projected 2020 acreage is similar to March 2019 inten­tions. A return to “normal” production also brings its challenges, Meyer said. CLICK TO VIEW MEYER'S SPEECH AT MFA

“If we have normal planting progress and normal yields, we’re going to have big supplies,” he said. “Sure, there’s an opportunity to provide inputs for that additional production. But bigger grain stocks can push down pric­es. We have to figure out what to do with it. And under current situations, it’s hard to envision not building stocks without a trade deal.”

Trade was among the challenges addressed by the Missouri Department of Agriculture during 2019, according to Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn, who also spoke at the annual meeting. She was personally involved with trade missions to England and Mexico this past year, while other department personnel traveled to China and Taiwan to discuss export opportunities.

“There’s a lot of good news on the forefront,” Chinn said. “The relationship we have with Mexico is strong, and I’m excited to have Missouri products continue going across the border. The Taiwan market is also strong, and they have a lot of faith in the products you’re providing.”


Chinn updated MFA members on the department’s “MORE” campaign’s initiatives to provide food for families in need, share agriculture’s story through social media, connect rural areas with high-speed internet and trim the state’s rules and restrictions on farmers. She reinforced that farmers can reach out to the department with questions or for assistance, such as crisis counseling. Free, confidential help is available by texting TalkWithUs to 66746 or calling 1-800-985-5990. More resources are available online at agriculture.mo.gov/more/resources.php.

“While you may have heard a lot of depressing news today, there’s also a lot of hope and optimism,” Chinn said. “When we have bad years, there are always good years ahead. I realize the amount of stress has been tremendous, but I want you to know that you’re not alone. We’re all in this together.” CLICK TO VIEW CHINN'S SPEECH FROM MFA'S ANNUAL MEETING

The afternoon’s guest speaker was Damian Mason, described as “a talk show host mixed with an agricultural economist and a healthy dose of comedian.” His entertaining presenta­tion focused on the future of U.S. agriculture, hitting the audience with humor as well as realism.

In his view, Mason said, the farmer of the future will need to adopt autonomous equip­ment, use less tillage, plant more cover crops and place inputs judiciously.

“We must do better by the land. It’s one of our most valuable assets,” Mason said. “Being better about placing our fertilizer and herbi­cides gets the job done and is good for the environment.”

While mid-sized farming operations are dwindling, Mason pointed out, very large and very small operations are growing. He said that trend opens opportunities for more value-add­ed products, alternative crops and niche farm­ing to meet the desires of today’s consumers.

“Only 1% of Americans farm, which means our customers outnumber us 99 to 1,” Mason said. “They are in the driver’s seat, but they don’t understand what we do. Moving forward, food production will be more about feelings, food production will be more about feelings, stories that make consumers feel good about their purchases—not how cheap it is. That’s our challenge. Reinvent or become extinct.” CLICK HERE TO VIEW MASON'S SPEECH.

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