Hatching and raising chicks is one of the most exciting (and also scary!) parts of keeping chickens.
But finding a reliable source of hatching eggs or baby chicks is never easy.
The absolute ideal is a local breeder who knows their chickens, whose flock you can see and whose eggs or chicks you can pick up personally, so avoiding the unpredictability of the postal services.
But that's not always possible, and other local sources like grain stores don't always have the breeds – or the healthy chicks – you might want.
In the US, hatcheries are a reasonable alternative. Buying from them has its issues, but there's generally an excellent choice and a good level of customer service.
One of the most well known of these is the Cackle Hatchery. This review covers the company's origins and the services they offer, together with important information about quality and availability, and the problems you may encounter when ordering from this – or any other – hatchery.
Finally, I offer my own recommendations about whether or not you should source your fertile eggs, baby chicks or adult poultry from Cackle.
One of the reasons I like the Cackle Hatchery is that it is a third generation family-based company, who take a pride in the services they offer and the quality of the eggs and chicks they sell.
It's based in Lebanon, Missouri, and specialises in hatching purebred poultry.
Cackle has been in operation since 1936 – an impressively long time to have a successful business through all the ups and downs of recessions and a global pandemic.
That in itself says a lot about the trust their returning customers place in their brand.
Cackle Hatchery sells all three and offers a huge selection of breeds.
There are up to 60 different breeds of hatching eggs – "up to" because they do not necessarily hatch all of them every year, and because breeds will produce fertile eggs at different times.
The online catalogue means you can sort eggs not only by breed but also by availability, price and popularity. An easy and fun way to choose the eggs you'll hatch.
Cackle test for fertility as far as they can. However, it's not possible to tell whether an egg is fertile until it's been in an incubator (or under a broody hen) for at least four or five days.
So their fertility estimate of between 70% and 80% is based on an average.
The level of successful hatch will be affected in particular by transporting the eggs from the hatchery to you. Even with the best packaging and careful handling, the natural jerking of road travel, variable temperatures in vans and postal depots, plus the potential of rough handling, means fertility is bound to be reduced.
They estimate that 50% – 70% is a more realistic hatching rate on posted eggs, but they do not guarantee that rate because of the unpredictable variables.
And of course, they can't guarantee how many males will hatch.
If you're looking to buy baby chicks but you're a bit overwhelmed by the range of choices available – there are nearly 200 breeds available – you'll find Cackle's online chick catalogue filters extremely useful.
You'll be able to sort by breed, price, availability, large and bantam breeds, rare breeds, popularity, "city and town" appropriate breeds, hot and cold weather tolerant breeds, and egg colour.
Cackle guarantee an average of 90% sexing on sex linked breeds only (obviously), but some are more reliable than others. Their black sex linked chicks, for example, are likely to be 99% accurate while Marans will only reach about 80% accuracy.
The Legbar is another easily identified breed: males have a yellow dot on their head, while females have a stripy back similar to the markings of a chipmunk.
They will refund if you have more than 10% males in your "female only" chick order, but you will understandably need to provide evidence, and the chicks must be no more than 12 weeks old.
This is a reasonable guarantee. Sexing chicks is not an exact science, and most sex-linked breeds will be clearly male or female by three months.
There's no guarantee on breeds that can't be sex linked.
See the Cackle guarantee policy for more details.
Cackle don't only sell adult chickens: they also have other types of adult birds such as ducks, geese, turkeys, pheasants, guinea and peafowl.
In terms of their chickens there are just 11 adult breeds. They're sold as "started pullets" which are between 15 and 22 weeks old – just before or at the point they will start laying ("point of lay").
You cannot order adult chickens to be picked up: they are always sent by mail.
As well as offering pure breed chicks, Cackle have a number of "bargain specials". They will basically put together a number of chicks who may or may not have features in common, but you have no control over their choice apart from initially choosing the particular "package".
These range from a mix of all females, to a selection of female chicks who will lay a "rainbow" of coloured eggs, to a mix of blue or dark brown egg layers, to a selection of exotic chicks...
There's a total of 41 different packages to choose from – including a "Crazy Chicken Lady" box!
Many of these packages come with few or no guarantees of gender, for example. They're interesting to look at, could be exciting to raise, and would certainly provide interest in the coop!
Just be sure that you read the descriptions carefully so you know exactly what you are getting – and that you can provide the chicks with the level of care they will need.
A successful hatch is critically dependent on the quality of the fertile eggs you place in the incubator. And a happy, healthy flock is dependent on the quality of the chicks you raise.
So the commitment to quality is important when assessing any egg or chick provider. That's why buying from an unknown provider on something like eBay or Craigslist is not a good idea.
So what is Cackle's quality like?
Because they prioritise the welfare of their hens and don't force them to keep laying all year, Cackle cannot guarantee exact times for either hatching eggs or chicks. Nature does not work by diary dates!
Generally speaking they sell hatching eggs and baby chicks from February until early October, but this varies from year to year and month to month.
The easiest way to see what's available is to use their own availability chart.
Shipping is the most unpredictable part of the whole hatchery ordering process – because once eggs or chicks leave the hatchery, they have no control over how they're dealt with by postal services. Both fertility and mortality are likely to suffer.
It's the same for any postal order, even from renowned breeders. You just have to accept that there are likely to be issues if you order online for a postal delivery.
There are, though, things you can do to mitigate those problems.
I checked Cackle's customer reviews not just on their own website, but also on independent review sites such as Google's Business Profile and the Better Business Bureau.
Most reviews on their own site were positive, and where there were criticisms they were answered promptly and, as far as I could tell, fully.
Cackle's own site:
Common praise went to...
Better Business Bureau:
Record nine complaints over the last three years, so an average of three per year – which is pretty impressive.
Examples of positive comments were...
Google Business Profile:
Record 1141 reviews, with an average rating of 4.3 / 5.
Examples of positive comments were...
Most critical reviews from all three sources centered around two issues:
In response to the first, Cackle inevitably say that they cannot be held responsible for chicks who become ill after they have been delivered – there are simply too many variables.
It's critically important that Cackle's instructions about how to receive chicks, and how to care for them in the first few days, are strictly observed.
The criticism of customer service is interesting, in that many of the comments from unhappy customers are in themselves quite abusive. Cackle do record their telephone enquiries so customer service is, insofar as it's possible to tell, taken seriously.
If you've read any of my other product reviews, you'll know that I have a "Golden Egg Award" where one egg means "don't go near this product!", and five means "get out there now and buy it!"
Why not a full five?
1. Better Business Bureau: Cackle Hatchery.
2. National Poultry Improvement Plan. Pub. United States Department of Agriculture, 2020.
3. Gail Damerow: Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks. Pub. Storey, 2013.