Chickens and the eggs
Jeff Smith, the third generation to help manage Cackle Hatchery, holds two recently hatched cinnamon queen chicks. Cinnamon queens are one of their most popular breeds, Jeff said, and will lay between 300 and 330 eggs per year.
This Robbins egg incubator made out of redwood and manufactured in the 1940s and 1950s holds nearly 26,000 eggs.
Rhonda Armstrong assembles boxes with packing material to get ready for the next hatch-day shipments.
Jeff stands outside of the original building still located where his grandfather built it on Commercial Street in downtown Lebanon, Mo. The hatchery offers more than 200 breeds of chickens, waterfowl, turkeys, guineas, peafowl and game birds.
Nancy Jones, right, a self-declared first-time farmer, drove from Arkansas to pick up her chicks on a Thursday afternoon. Originally from Houston, Texas, she now operates a small hobby farm where she also raises rescued miniature horses and rehabilitates other animals.
Three-year-old Cora Morgan, daughter of Sarah and Spencer Morgan, holds a new baby chick destined for their farm. The family moved to Missouri from Alaska and are in the process of establishing a small homestead.
Every Thursday morning, roughly 300,000 eggs come in from the farms that supply the hatchery. Here, Cackle Hatchery employee Stan Jutras counts the rare breed eggs to be sorted for either a Monday or Wednesday hatch date.
Beyond Cackle Hatchery’s unassuming storefront in downtown Lebanon, Mo., 1 million eggs rest in incubators at all times and close to 250,000 birds will hatch each week during the spring season.
It’s a lot to manage, said Jeff Smith, who is the third generation to help run the hatchery now owned by his parents, Nancy and Clifton Smith, and founded by his grandparents, Clifford and Lena Smith, in 1936.
“In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, almost every town in the United States had a hatchery,” Jeff said. “But in the 1960s, almost 99% of hatcheries closed their doors because they couldn’t make a living anymore.”
Commercialization and refrigeration had become the norm, he continued. Poultry meat and eggs could be bought at the grocery store.
“At that time, my granddad considered folding up, too,” Jeff said. “My mom and dad lived in St. Louis, and he called them up to see if they might want to give it a go at the hatchery.”
Together, the family put together a business plan to keep the hatchery going. They started offering fancier breeds, and Clifton and Nancy worked jobs outside the hatchery. Jeff joined his parents a little over 20 years ago after leaving a long-time career in the insurance and finance sectors.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs in the last 84 years, but all businesses go through cycles,” Jeff said.
The family now employs nearly 90 people during the busy season, which is just ramping up. The highest demand is late March through mid- May, though the hatchery fulfills orders for wholesalers and retailers from February through September.
Roughly half of the business is direct retail, Jeff said. People can walk into the same, albeit expanded, building Clifford built all those years ago, but the internet fundamentally changed their business. Customers can also order online to have chicks and other poultry species shipped to their door—no matter where they are in the continental United States.
“When someone places an order online, they are prepaying to reserve those eggs,” Jeff said. “From there, we’ll look at the order and send them the date we anticipate the birds to hatch.”
Though it sounds simple enough, a hatch date may take much calculation. Chickens hatch after 21 days, Jeff explained, but ducks hatch in 28 days. Often customers want a variety of birds or breeds, posing the unique challenge of trying to synchronize the hatch date. Once a date is set, the customer receives an email notification and information on how to prepare and care for their new arrivals.
“We have videos and frequently asked questions to help our customers,” Jeff said. “We want to make sure they have a good experience. It’s in everyone’s benefit to really understand what needs to be done when these babies arrive.”
Every Thursday, 300,000 eggs are delivered to the hatchery from suppliers. Once the birds hatch, they are shipped the same day and delivered to customers within two days.
“The post office is our main distribution system,” Jeff said. “Our hatch days are on Mondays and Wednesdays. When the chicks hatch, they have enough yolk in their systems to survive for a couple of days, but we package them with some bedding, food, and solid H2O, which is an almost gelatin-like substance, to keep them healthy along the way. ”
Hatch days are arduous for Jeff and his fellow employees. With roughly 1 million eggs in incubators at any given time, each Monday and Wednesday results in 125,000 birds respectively—all hatching within mere hours of one another.
It’s a 24/7 business.
“We’re delivering babies here,” Jeff said. “Often we’re exhausted, but we can’t just stop and take a day to rest. It’s like a freight train. We have to be there around the clock.”
The Smiths offer 200 varieties of birds hatched from eggs collected on nearly 60 contract farms mostly in the Seymour, Mo., area. Spreading out the farms also spreads out risk.
“Before the 1980s, we used to have 80% of our breeds on our own farm,” Jeff said. “I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ Spreading out our suppliers helps keep a disaster like a tornado, fire or disease from wiping us out.”
Customers can order as few as three birds of the same kind or as many as 2,000. In the world of small hobby hatcheries, Cackle Hatchery is the largest in Missouri. They have common and more rare breeds of chicks in addition to waterfowl, turkeys, guineas, peafowl and gamebirds.
“In earlier generations, people would buy chicks in 25, 50, 100 and 150 lots,” Jeff said. “Today’s customer might just want a few of each bird. What separates us in the market is our variety and quality.”
And in this market, demand exists.
“Business is good because people are wanting to get back to basic living,” Jeff said. “There’s kind of a chicken craze going on. It’s popular to have chickens. It’s almost moved into the pet arena.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, customers can pick up their orders at the Cackle Hatchery store, where supplies such as MFA poultry feed, waterers, heat lamps and other accessories are also stocked. These days are busy, but it’s a different kind of busy. People come in flurries, picking up boxes of chicks, looking at baby ducks and generally milling about the small showroom.
In early March, one of those walk-in customers was Sarah Morgan of Houston, Mo., who recently moved from Alaska to Missouri with her husband, Spencer, and two children, 3-year-old Cora, and 1-year-old River.
“Land prices were better here,” Sarah said. “We’re starting our own little homestead. This year we’re going to have chickens and bees, and next year we hope to have pigs and goats. We’ve always wanted this, and we felt like we were at a point in our lives where we could do it.”
This kind of resurgence in popularity guides the market currently, but markets always change, Jeff said. In the future, he plans to keep expanding varietal selection, where competitors may only offer basic breeds.
“You have to be able to look at business with new perspective,” he said. “Times have changed, and that’s the thing with business—you are either growing or dying. If you’re just staying at the status quo, it’s probably temporary, and you’re heading up or down.”
The business is no doubt a challenging one, but Jeff grew up here. He now has several children of his own who have also grown up around the hatchery. Jeff said he hopes they go to college and set out on their own for a few years as he did to decide if this is what they really want to do.
“I don’t want them to feel as if this is something they have to do or even should do,” Jeff said. “I went away and came back, but it isn’t for everyone. It becomes your life, but to me there are a lot of demanding occupations out there. There’s pride in a family business.”
For more information, contact your local participating MFA Agri Services to inquire about Chick Day deals or visit online at www.cacklehatchery.com.
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