Cackle Hatchery sells 193 different types of poultry — and will ship them all the way to Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
LEBANON – Chickens cross the road all the time, even though no one knows why. But here’s another question to ponder: Where exactly are those birds coming from?
In southwest Missouri, there’s a chance that Cackle Hatchery is the answer. “Generally we do 700,000 to 800,000 … eggs in the incubators in the hatchery at all times from January to September,” says Jeff Smith, a third-generation owner who serves as the hatchery’s sales and marketing director.
That number may sound like a lot — but it’s really only a drop in the hatchery’s bucket, which dates back to 1936. The year also testifies to the hatchery’s longevity, which Jeff says is unusual in today’s world. “Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, every little town in the U.S. had a little hatchery in town,” he says, but notes that most of those places closed up shop long ago. “We’re one of the few small, surviving hobby hatcheries left.”
In this case, one of “the few” equals one of 12 nationwide.
Young visitors say hello to some of the hatchery’s chicks at its annual chicken festival in October 2015.
From egg onward
Even though the hatchery’s been around for nearly eight decades, it’s clear that some aspects of the business haven’t changed much with time. Jeff walks as he talks, stopping to point out out some of the hatchery’s large redwood incubators dating from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. “We still have a lot of these old Robbins incubators that we still keep repairing and patching and putting into use,” he says of the equipment.
Multiple rooms hold those incubators, and each of the incubators can hold a few eggs — if a few eggs equals 26,400, that is. And that’s just the old Robbins. Some of the hatchery’s newer incubators hold up to 29,000 at one time.
None of those eggs, however, are laid at the hatchery: Instead, they’re sourced from Seymour, where Cackle has around 60 Amish farms housing their poultry flocks. “We have about 60,000 of our breeders down there,” says Jeff.
Thursdays are busy at the hatchery — after all, it’s when the eggs arrive and are placed in the incubators. But that’s only the first step on the egg-to-chick checklist, a process that Cackle has worked hard to perfect.
Temperature plays a role for the eggs, although Jeff says there’s not a hard and fast rule for how warm is best. “There’s quite a range where chickens will hatch,” he says, and notes that the range is also dependent on the breed and number of eggs in the incubator. “You can adjust the temperature on machines to make some hatch a little bit slower or a little bit quicker.” That said, the hatchery usually keeps things a toasty 99 or 100 degrees inside the incubators.
Humidity is also something to monitor, and electric blowers “chop the air and keep the temperature about the same all the way through the cabinet so you don’t have any hot spots or cold spots,” says Jeff. Another step is tilting the eggs, which in the old incubators is done by a steel beam in the middle of the cabinet every four hours. “That’s what eggs need to make sure they hatch properly,” says Jeff.
But the eggs don’t stay in the incubators until the chicks emerge. “Three days before they hatch, we’re taking them out and putting them in a hatching unit,” says Jeff. “They hatch out in hatching trays.”
From there, the chicks are boxed and marked with the farm they came from and the breed. Next they’re sent to the sexing room — where they determine whether the chicks will grow into hens or roosters.
In some of Cackle’s breeder flocks — ones that are designed for genetic selection of wing-feather growth — sexing can be done by looking at the birds’ feathers. However, when it comes to flocks that aren’t distinguishable via their feathers, professional sexers actually look inside the chicks to determine each one’s gender.
After that, the chicks are set to ship. Just like the old days, that shipping is done via the United States Postal Service. “When chicks hatch out, they have a three-day supply of yolk in their system,” says Jeff. “So that’s how they’re able to be shipped through the post office.”
Behind the scenes
The hatchery’s busy season is generally January through October, during which “we have 75 people who work 50 to 80 hours a week,” says Jeff. “We run 24/7… we’ve got thousands of orders being processed every week. We’ve got chickens hatching out and you can’t stop it to catch up.”
Even though the year’s “season” is over, the hatchery’s employees are still hard at work in other ways. The to-do list is filled with breeder-stock chores, deep cleaning, repairs, catalogue work and even launching a new website. “All the other stuff we don’t have time to do during the year, we’ll be doing (now),” says Jeff.
One of those hard-at-work employees is Jeff’s dad, Clifton, who took over the business from his father in 1963. “My dad will be 80 years old this next summer, (and) he can still outwork me,” says Jeff. “If I’ve got a 20-hour shift going on up here, I’m going home and he’s still working. I don’t know how he does it.”
Perhaps the business’ legacy plays a motivating role. “Well, it is a family business of 80 years and we take pride in that,” says Jeff. “So I think that is where the enjoyment comes from.”
That pride and hard work — from the entire Smith family — has been recognized on a national level. One of the hatchery’s owners was used as a source for The New York Times in 2009. Three years later, Larry the Cable guy, a stand-up comedian, actor, voice actor, and former radio personality, made a stop there in conjunction with a shoot for The History Channel.
Forget Santa: At Cackle Hatchery’s annual chicken festival, kids can pose with a larger-than-life feathered friend.
The hatchery business
Business is good these days, but it hasn’t always been that way. “Now, when my mom and dad took over in ’63, the hatchery business was really tough,” says Jeff. “Everybody had moved to the city and didn’t want to have anything to do with chickens. They went to the grocery store to get all their stuff.”
In order to survive, his parents turned to more exotic rare breeds and show birds to stay afloat — and their efforts paid off. The hatchery now offers 193 breeds of birds, but that’s not all they sell: Interested parties can purchase chicken houses, incubators, chicken decor and much more via Cackle’s website.
Those web-based orders are only one way the hatchery works to keep up with the times. They also have a considerable online and social media presence: YouTube videos, articles and online discussions teach newbies tips and tricks to the chicken business. (Of course, or those who wish to do business the old-fashioned way, there are 25 phone lines open for orders as well.) And each fall, the hatchery invites the community to its annual chicken festival, full of kid-friendly games, sales and activities.
“Right now, it’s (at) a high point,” says Jeff. “I mean, there’s a chicken craze going on, you know.”
Want to shop?
Cackle Hatchery (411 W. Commercial St., Lebanon; 417-532-4581) is open from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.