Rural Missouri Magazine

Get your chicks off Route 66
For 72 years, the Smith family has built
a national business around baby birds

by Heather Berry

Cackle hatchery hires professional chicken sexers to sort hatchlings for people who’ve ordered birds of a specific gender.

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” But there’s one Missouri business that’s been doing just that for 72 years.

“We take it one step further by trying to count our chickens before the eggs have been laid,” says Nancy Smith, who, together with her husband, Clifton, owns Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon.

As the third-largest supplier of chicks to individuals, feed stores and hobby farms, Cackle Hatchery has a lot of chicks to count.

Cackle Hatchery offers 160 varieties of chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, guineas, peafowl and game birds to customers. While the majority of the business is mail order, customers can come to the small retail store in Lebanon to buy hatchlings.

Current chicken breeds offered in Cackle’s catalog include buff orpingtons, black australorps, silver-laced wyandottes, light brahmas, welsummers and cochins. Those interested in colored eggs might choose the araucana, also known as the “Easter egg” chicken, which usually lays pale green, pink or blue eggs.

“I’m proud to say we’re one of the top three hobby hatcheries in the United States,” says Jeff Smith, the third generation of owners. “We might sell 5,000 birds to a feed store or 10 birds to an individual. That’s what makes us a hobby hatchery. We’re not a huge operation like Tyson.”

In 1936, Clifford Smith and his wife, Lena, started Cackle Hatchery. Years later, when the Smith’s son, Clifton, married Nancy, he hoped one day to take over the operation.

Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon currently offers 160 varieties of purebred poultry to their customers. They specialize in hatching and shipping day-old birds to local post offices for pick-up.

“He warned me we’d be in this business,” she says. “All I could think was ‘I don’t know anything about running a hatchery.’ ”

In 1964, Clifton and Nancy took over the family venture. At that time, birds were still shipped by train. But as rail service died down, trucks began delivering Cackle’s birds, many heading out on the fabled Route 66, only blocks from their downtown location. Today, most of those orders get shipped through Lebanon’s post office via priority mail to all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

“When we took over, the hatchery was doing OK, but not great,” says Nancy, a member of Laclede Electric Cooperative. “At the start, we had a few flocks of exotic birds and Clifton’s dad said ‘Kids, this is gonna be the icing on your cake — fancy birds.’ Then, exotics were Easter egg chickens, Polish and Hamburgs.”

It turns out Clifton’s dad was right. Fancy birds were the up-and-coming varieties hobby farmers wanted if they weren’t buying laying hens or birds to raise for butchering.

Cackle doesn’t raise its own breeding stock. Instead, it buys eggs and provides stock to contracted breeders in Missouri. Because the Smiths inspect the farms and know the breeders, they can assure customers they’ll receive quality birds.

The Cackle Hatchery family is comprised of daughter-in-law Edie Smith, left, Nancy and Clifton Smith, center, and their son, Jeff. Jeff and his wife, Edie, have officially been working with the family business for more than a year now.

Most of their 80 contracted flock owners live within 50 miles of the hatchery. Jeff says some of their owners have as few as 50 birds while others might have 4,000.

“Besides providing breeding stock, we blood test flocks and cull out anything we don’t think is quality,” says Jeff, who is also a member of Laclede Electric. “In return, owners agree to bring the eggs in each week for us to set in incubators.”

Hatching season runs from February through August, depending on the birds. From September through January, about 10 of the 35 employees stay on to help maintain the 30 incubators or test flocks. But orders for birds come in year-round.

“This has been our biggest year yet,” says Jeff. “I don’t know how the office handles it. We have six phone lines and they’re usually lit up from the moment we open until we close.”

The Smiths attribute part of their record-setting year to a troubled economy and meat recalls.

About 180,000 eggs are set in incubators at the hatchery each week. Many of the 30 incubators were built by Clifton Smith, son of the company founders, who still handles the maintenance of each machine, some of which are more than 70 years old.

“People want to know how their food is raised and if it’s been given any growth hormones,” says Jeff. “If they grow their own, they know exactly how it’s been cared for.”

Mondays and Wednesdays are the busiest days since those are hatch days. Despite averaging 110,000 new peepers per week, the Smiths can still predict the hour when the birds will arrive. That’s not easy when, for example, chickens take 21 days to hatch, ducks take 28 and geese take 30.

After the peeping tufts of fluff are removed from hatching trays, they’re sorted by breed, counted and separated by chicken sexers who sort cockerels (males) from pullets (females). Employees then work through the night, filling orders to ensure the chicks are ready to go to the post office at the crack of dawn. While the chicks are packed according to the weather they’ll endure, there’s no need to worry about food and water, at least not for a few days.

Five-year-old Heston Parsons of Rolla enjoyed seeing all the little peepers in Cackle Hatchery’s retail area. Anyone can stop by Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday to view or buy any of the birds the hatchery has on display.

“If you could see inside a chick, you’d see some egg yolk,” says Nancy. “It’s the equivalent to a (human) mother’s colostrum after giving birth.”

Miraculously, the yolk ensures the chick has food to survive for 72 hours — the same amount of time it could take to arrive at their new homes.

Delivering chicks safe and sound has been the aim of Cackle Hatchery for 72 years. Now, with a new generation of Smiths joining the business, that tradition should carry on for as long as farmers and fowl fanciers buy birds. Jeff always knew that one day he, too, would be in the profession. Last year, he and his wife, Edie, joined his parents, becoming the third generation in the family business.

Jeff says he’s excited to be part of the family business, but glad his parents are still around.

“It’s still Dad and Mom’s show,” says Jeff. “I just hope they’re planning to work here forever.”

Contact Cackle Hatchery at or by calling 417-532-4581. The hatchery is located at 411 W. Commercial St., Lebanon, MO 65536.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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