Are pasture-raised egg yolks always orange? If we're being honest, it depends.
When it comes to pasture-raised eggs, you've probably heard some variation of this phrase:
"You can tell if an egg is pasture-raised by its deep orange yolk color."
Why does color matter? Well, you've probably heard that color is a reflection of a hen's lifestyle and nutrition. Access to the outdoors, to fresh grass, to bugs and forage - all of these things not only increase the color of the egg yolk, but also the nutrition that a consumer receives.
But I'm here to let you know a little secret: pasture-raised eggs are not always orange. And if they're raised right, this has no influence on their nutrition.
Like most natural systems, egg yolk colors will experience variation throughout the year. This is both normal and desirable, especially if we want to raise animals in a more humane manner. Expecting the same consistent result, throughout all seasons, during all conditions, is the mindset of industrial farming - not regenerative models.
Why and when does egg yolk color change? In North Carolina, we generally experience two big shifts: one during the peak of summer, and another during the winter.
In the summer, the blistering heat we experience is uncomfortable for everyone - including hens. Even though the hens are outdoors, they often prefer the shade during the hottest parts of the day, and forage during the evening. With this exploration time reduced, they'll be more reliant on supplemental feed for their nutrition.
But there's also a shift in what's growing on the land. Especially in years of drought (like this past one), new grass growth can be inconsistent. And on our particular piece of land, the dominant native grasses are cool-season grasses like fescue.
So, often in the deep summer, the egg yolks will change from dark orange to deep yellow. But this variation isn't a reflection of nutrition. Being outdoors, having access to pasture and bugs, getting exercise - all of these things produce the same nutritional results, even if the color varies.
The same thing happens in the winter, when grass growth stops. This is generally a period of rest for the hens as well. Their laying productivity slows down, and with less productivity, there's less need for foraging. They conserve their energy for the busyness of spring.
If this is true, why does it seem like dark orange egg yolks are so prevalent and consistent? And why do we see products at the grocery store that have this color - even if they aren't following the practices of local farmers?
Because people have grown to expect dark orange egg yolks, many pasture-raised (or conventional!) farmers have begun dying their egg yolks to meet this demand. A quick perusal of the poultry message boards we frequent reveal paprika, marigold petals, chili flakes, and alfalfa feed as some of the most popular additives. And this is fairly widespread - many of the bigger feed mills have begun automatically incorporating these additives to produce this result.
I understand why farmers have chosen this route. It can be difficult to explain why yolk colors change, or to have your practices questioned because the color isn't what was expected. But that's not the route I'm comfortable taking. I'd rather be honest with you about what real food is, and how it evades our expectations, than to change it to meet unsustainable demands.
You will find that our egg yolks are often a much deeper color than what you see at the grocery store. But, as mainstream producers become more savvy at how to manipulate this, it's our practices that matter more. And, as always, this is the importance of knowing your farmer, of asking them questions, and knowing how they align with your values.
On our farm, we move our hens to fresh pasture three times a week. (Most pasture-raised farmers move them once or twice a week.) They're outdoors 365 days a year - even in the snow! They work in tandem with our cows to manage our pastures, diversify the species present there, and sequester nutrients in the soil.
We feel confident that these practices go above and beyond what many people do - and with what our chickens need. And we feel that we offer a nutritionally superior product as a result. And we've chosen to lean into transparency with you, even if it requires more effort. We're educating ourselves on real food alongside many of you - learning what it is, and how it is different than what we've often thought food should be.
So, as we head into winter, you may see some change in the color of your egg yolks! And that's okay! It's all as it should be. And if you do have questions, we always welcome the conversation.