The most common inquiry we get from our consumers goes like this: you say on your website that your hens are pastured, but when I cracked the eggs, some yolks were bright orange and others weren’t. What gives? Aren’t they all coming from the same flock? Don’t they all eat the same thing? Well, here is your answer:
In order to get to the core of why there is variation in your yolk color, there are two important questions to answer:
— How does diet affect yolk color?
— How does hen behavior affect yolk color?
The yellow-orange yolk color comes from plant-based substances called carotenoids that are found in plants, like marigold and alfalfa, that have a color-changing effect. Chickens eat carotenoids when they are wandering out in the pasture, but the ingredients in their supplemental feed can also provide a carotenoid source. The amount of carotenoid that they ingest depends on what they eat and how much. It is important to note that the carotenoids have no effect on the flavor or quality of an egg – they just change the yolk color.
So, how does this affect your yolks? The theory goes that hens on pasture eat more natural plants and ingest a deeper hue of carotenoid than they would if they just ate, say, corn. This makes the yolks of their eggs more likely to be a deep orange than a light yellow.
Broadly speaking, this is true, and at Handsome Brook Farm our goal is to get our hens on pasture eating as much natural forage as possible. This often produces the type of orange yolks we aim for. Often. Not always. Hens eat a varied diet which leads to varied carotenoid levels and, therefore, different colored yolks. This can be seen even within the same flock on the same day!
For example, these five eggs came from a single dozen from one of our farms. They were produced by the same flock, likely on the same day, yet they are 5 different colors. Only one of them is super orange. Why? The answer lies in question two: chicken behavior.
We like to think of chicken behavior like we think of our own behavior. That is, we all act differently from each other, and we even change up our own activities day-to-day.
Some days we are active and want to be out doors, running far and free. Other days we may prefer the comfort and safety of the barn (maybe one of our friends spotted the neighborhood hawk).
Some days we find a patch of buttercups and eat only that all morning. Other days we want some variety in our diet and spend the day foraging with our friends.
Some days we lay our eggs later in the morning and munch on the supplemental feed we find in the barn. Other days when it’s raining and windy, or really hot and sunny, we prefer to hang out in the barn or huddle up with our friends under a shady tree, eating bugs instead of plants.
The result is that even from hens in the same flock, running around on the same pasture, laying eggs on the same day, we get differently colored yolks. It does not mean that the hens were kept inside (though for short stretches of bad weather we may keep them in for safety). It just means that mother nature is at work in behavior and diet, and we get the results of her magical ways.
Even though these variations are all-natural, we aim for consistency at Handsome Brook farm. We open the barn doors wide. We keep our pastures and wooded lots accessible and well rotated. We plant cover crops hens love, like alfalfa, which are rich in carotenoids. Still, we get what mother nature gives us and we are thankful for her goodwill.
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