100 years of poultry

-Submitted photo A box of new chicks is opened upon arrival at a buyer’s farm. The new chicks are expected to grow into good egg producers for a rural Boone County farmer’s market.

WEBSTER CITY — The McMurray Hatchery is celebrating a century of business in 2017.

Located in Webster City, the hatchery was founded by Murray McMurray in 1917.

The hatchery began as a backyard hobby where purebred show chickens were raised for McMurray. It quickly grew into a rare breed poultry business, serving customers worldwide.

According to company information, orders for chicks came from domestic companies such as Martha Stewart to international entities such as the emperor of Japan.

And there’s a wide variety of chickens the hatchery sells.

-Submitted photo Murray McMurray is shown here in the delivery truck in the early days of McMurray Hatchery, which was founded in Webster City and still does business in Webster City.

When one glances through their catalog, the chickens they will see have brilliant plumes of red, purple and rust share soft, black ruffled feathers, mingled with patch-work patterns on dozens of rare breeds.

It’s not just chickens that have those colors; they include waterfowl, guinea, ducks and geese, as well as more than a hundred breeds of chicken.

Information found on the hatchery’s website shows it’s serious about bird health management. The site is filled with health care tips and winter care blogs that are written by poultry experts and updated seasonally.

Lucien “Bud” Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, said they don’t “sell to large commercial operations.”

“We are a retail hatchery selling directly hobbyist, backyard flocks and small farms,” Wood said.

He also explained how the hatchery delivers its products to its customers.

Prior to hatching, the developing chick receives its food from the yolk. Just before it hatches, the chick envelops what’s left of the yolk and what remains gives the chick all the nutrition it needs for the 72-hour shipping period, which Wood said has been in the United States Postal Code for more than a century.

“Day-old chicks from over 100 different breeds are shipped via the United States Postal Service following that 100-year-old U.S. Postal Code,” he said. “It is normal for the hatchery to receive follow-up reports that all birds arrived alive and well to their destinations.”

Because of how animal health regulations have changed over the years, Wood said the hatchery can now only ship to post offices within the United States.

“Our Canadian orders ship to the closest U.S. post office and buyers pick up their orders with the proper health papers and carry the birds across the border,” he said. “The average order is 25 to 30 birds, often filled with peeping chicks of many different breeds.”

When it comes to shipping, Wood said care is taken to ensure the chicks are safe.

One way of doing that is by shipping in boxes that have the sides slanted and stand-offs at the top, which creates air space for the birds.

“We can adjust the ventilation holes on the side and top of the box, depending upon the summer heat and winter cold,” he said. “Based on the seasonal weather, we will adjust the number of chicks in the box. In colder weather, we will put more chicks in the box. In hot weather, less.”

McMurray Hatchery has its busiest season from March to June.

“We hatch from the last week of January through the last week of October,” Wood said. “We have around 50 employees who operate the business. These jobs include management, phone representatives, hatchery workers, order fillers, farm workers and truck drivers.”

While the hatchery has been around for a century, Wood said it’s continuously adding new products and services.

This year alone, he said the hatchery added two new chicken breeds to its catalog. One, the Red-Shouldered Yokohama, is an old purebred that was first developed in Europe from Japanese breeds that were brought to Europe by French missionaries. The other is the Whiting True Blue, a new breed known for its blue eggs.

And beyond that, Wood said the hatchery looks to last another 100 years.

“McMurray Hatchery’s goal is to serve customers for the next 100 years, maintaining heritage purebred poultry and offering new breeds and hybrids for increased production,” he said. “We recently replaced major pieces of equipment and opened two new breeder farms.”

About Murray McMurray

Born in Webster City in 1888, McMurray was educated at Grinnell College and completed a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University. Returning to his hometown in 1917, he joined the staff at the Hamilton County State Bank where his father was president. McMurray continued his pre-college hobby of breeding rare birds and soon obtained one of the first incubators available in America. In 1919, he published the first McMurray Hatchery sales catalog. It is reported that he sold 300,000 chicks a year from the bank’s back door until his father suggested his son move the hatchery elsewhere. McMurray then purchased a vacant house with a large lot, and moved the hatchery. The business operated from this home office until 1991.

McMurray was promoted to bank president in 1920 when his father suddenly died. The bank business declined rapidly during the post-World War I Depression due to the failing farm economy and was closed in the spring of 1926. According to McMurray’s grandson and namesake, “Dad came in the door and announced the bank was closed. He had $50 in his pocket, four children, and a pregnant wife.” McMurray was 29. Due to the success of his backyard hobby, McMurray transferred his time and talent to the hatchery. Generations of McMurrays have worked in the hatchery over the past 100 years.

According to the hatchery website, in 1991, a state-of-the-art hatchery was built outside Webster City. Through the online hatchery tour, this is where “setters”, computer controlled machines, rotate the eggs gathered from the barns until it is time for the move to hatching rooms. The incubation process is about 21 days. 80,000 to 100,000 rare breed birds are produced weekly. This adds up to over 3.5 million birds annually.

The hatchery holds photo contests several times a year though social media sites. Due to bio-security concerns, the public may only tour the century-old business through a five-minute video available on the website at mcmurrayhatchery.com.


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