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Murray McMurry chicks travel long distances

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 04/04/2013 7:33 PM

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WEBSTER CITY, Iowa — Nothing heralds spring on the farm as the sound of baby chicks does. The peeping chorus at Murray McMurray Hatchery is amplified by the thousands.

Each Friday is a red letter day. Fifty workers begin the task of preparing chicks for mailing. It's often midnight before the mail trucks leave for Minneapolis and Des Moines.

Chris Huseman, director of marketing, said March to May is their busy season. From January to October, 2 million chicks will hatch and be mailed and arrive at their destination within 72 hours.

Fertile eggs are delivered several times a week by farmers in the Webster City area who care for the hens and roosters. The eggs are placed on trays and kept cool. Each tray carries the breed name. On Fridays, they are placed in the incubator to begin the three-week incubating period.

"The incubator mimics the mother hen's brooding habits," said Huseman. "Temperature is controlled, moisture added and air is circulated. Eggs are turned throughout the day."

As new trays go in on one side of the incubator, newly hatched chicks are coming out. Baskets are labeled with the chicken breed.

Some customers order straight run, said Huseman. That means they take whatever hatches. Others want only pullets or they may just want roosters. The difference is easily discernible for some breeds. However, for many breeds the chick's vent must be looked at to determine sex.

Sexing was once taught by several schools in the United States, but now it only is taught at one school in Japan. This team of sexers travels from one hatchery to another throughout the season.

The hatchery began as a hobby in 1917 for banker Murray McMurray. Every farm had chickens at the time. Advancements had been made in the poultry industry. He purchased a commercial-size incubator.

"During the 1920s, the bank failed," said current owner Bud Wood. "He came home from work one day and told his family that the chickens and hatchery would have to pay the bills."

Sons Charles and John became owners after World War II. Grandson Murray McMurray and Mike Lubbers were the next owners. In 2012, Bud Wood became president and owner of the company. He was McMurray's neighbor and learned the business through designing and maintaining its computer software.

"Our specialty are the Heritage breeds," said Wood. "We keep our lines as pure as possible. Most of the chicken breeds we have were offered in our first catalogs."

The interest in their Heritage birds remains strong, said Wood. Heritage chickens help teach children chores and responsibility and investment in equipment is minimal.

"Some towns and cities permit chicken raising within the city limits," he said. "Three or four hens will produce enough eggs each week for most families."

The Red Ranger broiler is an excellent forager. It grows a bit slower, said Wood. He notices a different taste and a pinkish tint to the meat.

Bantams result from choosing smaller birds in the breeding process. A bantam is just a miniature version of another breed with all of the breed's characteristics.

From their address file, the firm knows chicks are shipped to downtown Manhattan, Atlanta, Dallas and Denver. Celebrities, including Loretta Lynn, Martha Stewart, George Foreman and the music group Alabama are just a few who have ordered chickens and sent an autographed photo back.

Murray McMurray Hatchery conducts several photo contests annually. One photo was chosen for this year's catalog cover, said Huseman.

Huseman raises chickens in his back yard as do many of the other hatchery employees. During the week, as many as 18 customer representatives can answer questions from customers. The firm's website includes a forum that allows poultry owners to discuss anything related to the business.