BELOIT — Roxanne coos softly and struts closer hoping for a handout. Edna, with glossy rust and black colored feathers, quizzically looks on from behind. Penny, the shiny coppery colored one, quietly scratches the ground in search of doomed bugs. Penny hangs back allowing Roxanne center stage. Murial sits tight in the nesting box the girls share.
All four are the plump, glossy and calm inhabitants residing in the backyard of Rick McGrath and Ana Kelly, who shared a little bit about the journey to animate their yard with chickens and bees.
Rick and Ana started out by purchasing full-grown chickens for about $5 each about two years ago.
“Raising baby chicks is an entirely different operation that we were not set up to do. It takes 16 weeks for chicks to mature enough to begin laying eggs. We wanted eggs now!” Rick said.
Roxanne, Penny and Edna softly cooed their approval in the background.
The four hens happily gobble up all kitchen scraps, plus weeds, grass clippings, and organic material. The tumbler composters sit idly near the chicken coop; their usefulness has been consumed by the four happy chirruping hens.
“It’s like a present every day,” said Ana.
The hens lay an egg a day beginning in the spring. Egg production drops off during the cold months.
The girls are perfectly comfortable outside in their coop over the winter when hay bales are moved in place surrounding the chicken coop and run. A small electric current keeps the water bucket from freezing.
A sure sign of spring is when the girls begin laying. Another springtime bonus is the winter’s supply of compost that collects under the coop.
Each spring, Rick digs out the compost and spreads it over the gorgeous vegetable and flower beds that blanket the property.
Predators have never been a problem. Backyard hens can lay for three to four years before egg production slows down. The couple are already considering which “Old Chicken Retreat” to take their girls to when that time comes.
“Eat them? I don’t think so,” Ana said.
Both Ana and Rick report that their cholesterol count is good.
Rick and Ana also keep bees — they have two hives.
“A minimum of two hives are necessary for comparison,” said Rick.
The McGrath-Kellys travel to a number of conferences for their business which is in part, developing websites. Several years ago during a break while at a conference in downtown Milwaukee, attendees were invited to the top of a highrise.
Rick joined the group up top where there were bees everywhere and about six different hives.
The resident beekeeper gave a “Beekeeping 101” talk to those up on the roof.
Beekeeping for three seasons now; they’ve learned a lot, had some losses, but overall their hives are successful.
The first year they lost a hive to mites, “we didn’t know anything about mites.” The second year they lost the other colony to ants. Learning each season has been part of the process. They extract honey by hand, mindful to never take too much.
A certain portion of the honey must remain to feed the hive and the new larvae or “ba-bees” over the winter.
“Eating honey right from the comb is just magical,” said Ana wistfully. “We don’t sell the honey, we give it as Christmas gifts.”
The only time Rick has been stung is during the routine maintenance. The simple rule, ”don’t stand in front of the entrance to the hive,” greatly reduces the hazard of being stung.
“Keeping chickens and bees is like watching a fire in a fireplace, it holds your attention, it’s so peaceful and soothing,” said Rick.