Orange yolks from backyard chickens
Backyard Chickens, Nutrition

How to Get Those Delightful Dark Orange Yolks From Your Backyard Chickens

If you asked most people what color egg yolks are, they would likely answer yellow. Yolks have always been associated with the color yellow, which is unfortunate because backyard chicken keepers know better. Backyard chicken keepers know that yolks can and should be a bright, bold orange, and those bright, bold orange yolks are a sign of a happy, healthy hen.

Last year, I compared my pasture-foraging, insect-pecking, soil-scratching, whole grain-feeding chickens’ yolks to the yolks of both their “free-ranging” and factory-farmed counterparts. The results were clearly visible: Yolks from my homegrown eggs were not only darker, but also fuller and thicker. Even the eggshells were denser and harder to crack.

But what’s the big deal about orange yolks?

Besides being a coveted color, orange yolks are an indication of a well balanced and highly nutritious diet. A few things factor into the making of an orange yolk: xanthophylls, omega-3 fatty acids, and meats.

Xanthophylls are a class of carotenoids. Carotenoids are natural plant pigments found in many fruits and vegetables. It’s often thought that beta-carotene, one of the more well-known carotenoids, is responsible for giving yolks the orange pigment that people associate with carrots. But in actuality, beta-carotene benefits yolks nutritionally, rather than colorfully. The carotenoids that cause deeper yolk coloring are xanthophylls, which are more readily absorbed in the yolks. (Lutein is one such xanthophyll, and a lot of lutein means a lot more orange.) Xanthophylls are found in dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and collards, as well as in zucchini, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.

Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in flax seeds and sea kelp, which are both important components of my homemade whole grain chicken feed.

And did you know that chickens are not meant to be vegetarian, no matter what your premium carton of organic/grain-fed/cage-free eggs tells you? Chickens are omnivores by nature and their healthiest diets include meats, such as mealworms, beetles, grasshoppers, grubs, and whatever creepy-crawly they can pull out of the ground. I’ve even heard of chickens (those ballsy ones out in the boonies) attacking small rodents and snakes!

When you have all of these sources incorporated into a hen’s healthful diet, the nutrients they consume are passed on to their eggs and concentrated in their yolks. According to Mother Earth News, which conducted its own egg analysis, and a more recent Pennsylvania State University study, pastured eggs contain higher levels of vitamins A, D and E; more beta-carotene; and more omega-3s.

All this means is that a pastured egg is better for you. And that’s one of the reasons we raise chickens, right?

So, how do we get those delightful dark orange yolks from our backyard chickens?

Let your ladies roam a pasture (or a garden — especially if you’re digging over new beds — or even just a new patch of dirt in their chicken tractor) for an orange-boosting bug buffet.

Give them plenty of fresh greens to increase the lutein in their yolks. The darker the green the better, so I often fix them a feast of edible amaranth (one of my favorite summer greens), kale, collards, broccoli leaves, or whatever I happen to have growing in my garden. If it’s the middle of winter and your garden greens are lacking, you can feed them alfalfa.

They’re very handy helpers at the end of the season when most of my greens have bolted and become bug-ridden. Let the chickens clean up those plants before you pull them out for your compost pile. It’s a win for everybody! (Except the bugs, that is…)

Let your chickens clean up end-of-season plants

Xanthophylls in dark leafy greens give your eggs darker yolks

(As an aside, don’t be fooled by the cheater method that egg factories take, and simply feed your chickens more corn. While corn can give your yolks that nice golden color, it has little nutritional value.)

After a few weeks, you’ll be so used to seeing orange yolks (the way most of us have been conditioned to see yellow yolks) that you might even think they haven’t changed in color. Buy some eggs from the store and crack them into a bowl with your homegrown eggs — you’ll be stunned at the difference!

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  • Mark

    Actually it has been scientifically proven that most darker egg yolk has much more nutritional benefits. Including much more cholesterol which has been scientifically proven to be very necessary for the human brain and other health benefits! Please note that it has been scientifically proven that when humans eat food that is high in cholesterol it has no effect on blood cholesterol levels!

    Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are used in many food products as a preservative and it is killing people! The best thing that came out of the Obama administration was to attempt to force the FDA to get that stuff out of our foods. Please get hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils and other food products that contain them out of your diet! Most breads, cake mixes, and ready to eat products sold in a supermarket has it as an ingredient. It has been scientifically proven to cause hardening of the arteries (which is the leading cause of high blood pressure). It also directly damages the heart and may be the leading cause of heart failure! The most interesting fact about it is that if there is any amount in a food product or oil the health risks are the same (because it disables your body from being able to properly process animal fats), many of which are healthy fats!

    I know these things from tons of research and experiences over the last 10 years.

  • Farmer D

    Thank you for your kind thoughts and beliefs. Having read many journals and articles about yellow vs orange yolks, I am not sure I concur with all your comments as it’s down to their diet, as you rightly say, but the flavour and nutritional values in my humble opinion isn’t that different. That being said the only way to truly evaluate the nutritional value is by sending the eggs to a lab for a proper analysis.

    I know people say about eggs and vegetables, sweeter must be better… but that is purely an opinion not a scientifically proven fact.

    I work on a school farm and only feed our “ladies” the best possible feeds with no GMO’s… I arrive at 7am every morning I work (3 days a week) to let them out to forage all day to their hearts content. On weekends one of the teachers lets them out. They eat bugs, weeds/herbs likes sorrel and dock (I like both myself), wild oats, worms and you’re right and they don’t have to be “out in the boonies”, they all ganged up on a mouse and killed it and well… you know the rest.

    What you’ve helped me finally decide on is to get some cash from the school and grow some sprouts to add depth and culinary colour to
    their diet. Thanks for writing a great post. Greetings from Australia!

    • True, flavor is subjective and most people don’t eat plain eggs by themselves anyway. I agree that nutritional value can’t be measured without lab analysis, but you can probably assume your pastured eggs are higher in vitamins (in comparison to conventionally raised eggs) based on the scientific studies already performed. I think sprouts are a great addition to their diet. Your flock is very lucky!

  • Tom Davis

    I used to pet my grandpa’s chickens

  • Chris

    Wow!!! How cool and how interesting– seaweed for the chicks—yummy eggs I bet

  • Bets

    While visiting Ireland last year for a month, I encountered a woman gathering seaweed on a rather deserted beach. She explained that not only was seaweed great in the bath, but feeding dried seaweed to her chickens produced bright orange yolks!

  • Bets

    While in Ireland for a month last year I encountered a woman on a rather deserted beach collecting seaweed. show explained that not only was it nice to bathe in, but when dried and fed to her chickens the yolks were very orange.

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  • Yu-Hsian Wang

    Oh Linda, I remember those orange yolks! I grew up in Taiwan, and when you get eggs from the yard, when you crack them open, the yolks are orange. They taste soooo much better than the eggs you can get here. Mom used to say that the “egg fragrance” is soooo enticing (scrambled eggs), that when we moved here to the US she said the eggs here stink when scrambled. *sigh*

    Our chickens roamed in the backyard (we had 12 hens and 1 rooster), they didn’t even live in a coop. I remember as a kid, watching them all “fly” up a bush that’s only a feet or two off the ground, and sit in a ring around the center trunk; that’s how they slept at night. Our dog was always on the watch, and the birds all know they are safe. The chickens kept our yard free of insects, centipedes, bugs, and baby snakes!

    • That’s so idyllic to have chickens freely ranging a yard with no coop!

      • Chris

        …and it is until after a few years of it. Hated to- wanted them to gain all the carotenoids they could obtain by the percentage of grass in their diet but after years of not being able to keep them out of my flower beds, I elected to have them live in a coop area now. Supplement with hanging fresh greens chopped out of my garden and use deep bedding to provide them with daily scratching fun.

        Now my flower bed is beautiful once again. Miss the free ranging in the yard but they can be so destructive on flower beds/-lol took its toll on this ol boy- lol

        • LOL I know how you feel. I let my chickens roam the entire yard for over a year until they became too destructive on my vegetable beds. Now, a gate separates the “nice yard” from the “chicken yard” – still a large amount of space for them to play, but with hardier plants and trees that they can’t kill.

  • Matt M.

    Thank you. I bought a couple of cartons of brown eggs from a brand I don’t usually buy and the yolks were a much deeper orange than I expected. I have seen yolks that are more orange than the usual store-bought yellow, but these were really deep orange. At first I thought that maybe they were bad but I found this site. I cracked em open, no smell and so I went ahead and cooked and ate em. And they had a nice rich flavor to them.

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  • Liberty

    I read that Purina Layena feed (Tractor Supply $15 a bag) will give the yoke a nice deep orange color. Might be easier and cheaper than trying all the vegetables.

    • Purine Layena has marigold extract in it to produce dark yolks. Marigolds are a source of xanthophylls, which I discuss in this post. For people mixing their own feed or using another commercial feed, the greens suggested are a great way to go (plus they offer additional nutrients).

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  • Celestine Sullivan

    I put a bundle of kale leaves, few bundles of broccoli leaves, a couple bundles of spinach, and some collard greens in their coop yesterday and this morning all the greens were gone:-)

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  • Celestine Sullivan

    Thanks Linda!

    I got all the ingredients ordered and I’ve also started to give them the greens you mentioned like Kale, spinach, collard greens, broccoli leaves. They are not very enthusiastic about them at all. They kind of just kick them around and not eating them. Any ideas on how to make them eat the greens?

    Also, I live in a city where they have limited space and time to roam and free range so I am thinking about buying live mealworms…will that be sufficient enough? Dried mealworms will do the same trick?

    Please advice! I didn’t realize how unhealthy my hens were until I read your article about the orange yolk. I’ve fed them organic scratch feed since they were young so I will take any advice I can get from you to get the orange and healthy egg 🙂 Thanks Linda!

    • If your chickens have never been fed greens before, it might take them a little while to get used to them. I started by holding a few leaves and feeding them by hand when they were pullets. Soon they started foraging on their own and eating everything green in sight! Live mealworms and dried mealworms are both fine, though I use the latter because it’s less maintenance.

    • Chris

      Celestine, I would suggest bunching the cut leaves and tying the stalks together. Hang them about the height of the chickens from a fence in the coop, post orb whatever. They prefer to pluck those greens that are hanging much better than when just lying on the ground. You’ll watch them just devour them this way, in short order.

  • Yep!

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  • jamesjamison

    Good eggs are hard to find for those without hens (not allowed to have them here). I remember the orange yolks from the birds in the country. When using in recipes had to use half the amount stated because of the sticky yolks.

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  • Susan

    I bought some eggs recently where the yolks were red. I don’t mean really golden, but red. They tasted fine, but I was concerned. The lady said maybe they got into the dog food that may have had red dye. It’s winter and they just started laying again after a few months of not laying. Any ideas?

    • It sounds bizarre, but feed does affect the color of the yolk. It’s possible those chickens may have binged on something super red… maybe berries, beets, or I guess red-dyed dog food. If the eggs had no smell and tasted fine, I wouldn’t be concerned unless you continually get red yolks from the eggs you buy… then something might be amiss with that flock.

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  • Micheal Griffen

    We raise a whole row of “perennial tree collards” ( sometimes called tree kale) specifically for our pastured chickens. It seems to be their favorite vegetable. Out here in N. CA near the coast the tree collards produce new leaves all year long, and the plants live for many years

    Our chickens’ eggs are quite orange, but the yolks get almost into the “red” category when we give them the many left over bruised or cracked open tomatoes and red peppers!!

    We’ve also got a lot of wild pigweed (amaranth) that we pull out of the garden, and the chickens like this quite a bit too.

    • I love tree collards! We have overwintered broccoli plants (that will be going into their second winter soon) which very much resemble tree collards at this point. They’ve been sustaining our chickens all year long. Fallen cherry tomatoes and tomato leaves are also a favorite for them! (Really, what don’t they eat?)

      • Dale

        I thought tomatoes were not suppose to be fed to chickens?

        • I have never heard that, and I don’t know of any valid reason why they can’t eat tomatoes.

  • bug

    is raw oatmeal bad, they love it.

  • bug

    they forage all day, but it’s just a good size average city backyard. so I do supplement with bugs and worms. they’re rotten girls.

  • bug

    They won’t eat greens. R mealworms bad 4 them?
    And it’s summer here.

    • Mealworms are a good source of protein for them and should be given as a treat. Let them forage for other bugs on their own.

  • nano

    One more question. Does that apply on quails?

    • I don’t know, as I don’t raise quail.

  • nano

    How long does it take to change yolk color?

    • That depends on your chickens. For all dietary changes, I usually wait a couple of weeks to gauge any results.

  • bug

    HELP! my eggs have turned yellow. i’m so upset. im here trying to figure out what happened. they crave oatmeal, which I’ve supplied. is that my mistake? i’ve tried to give them greens, they show no interest. what can I do?

    • Is it summer or winter where you are right now? Yolks tend to be lighter in winter since greens and bugs are not as abundant and chickens’ dietary needs change with the seasons. I’ve always felt that they know what their bodies need and eat accordingly, so continue to give them what they crave. Try a variety of different greens and vegetables (I offer kitchen scraps, like squash and tomatoes), and toss out mealworms as a treat.

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  • mel

    The first time i saw an orange yolk from an egg produced locally, i thought the egg was bad–I was so used to seeing very pale yellow yolks. Pretty sad!

    • I think most people have only seen pale yellow yolks, so it’s such a gift that we’re able to see orange ones. 🙂

  • alicia

    I’m new to chickens – I currently have 2 one year old laying hens that I purchased this summer and about 20 pullets that will start laying this fall. I live in Wisconsin and am curious if the orange yolks change to a lighter color in the winter?

    • If your chickens won’t have access to fresh greens in winter, then yes, their yolks will be lighter.

  • hannah

    My backyard-big-city Rhode island red hunted, killed, and ate a mouse once. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Then the other girls chased her around until the carcass was shredded and devoured. They’re basically tiny dinosaurs.

    • I wish our chickens would take care of our mice problem!

    • mcdanielindigo .

      We call that “chicken football” around here. LOL!!! Want to have some fun, throw a mouse or toad out in the middle of twenty hens or so and just sit back and watch. Oh, it is also funny when they grab some bumble bees!!!

      • That sounds so gruesome! 😛

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  • BowFarm

    I think that the amount of exercise hens gets makes a difference in the quality of their eggs. And if they can eat plenty of earthworms, bugs, and even the occasional field mouse, their eggs will be even better. I had fun with an egg yolk today. I’m amazed at how thick the egg yolks are.
    http://wp.me/p44c6k-tU

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  • Camille Martin

    Ive had people freak when I mention that I feed my birds meat and even chicken organs etc. When I make broth I cook it three times and at the end I have this bone and veggie mush. The chickens get that, veggie clippings, I sprout for myself and they get some of that also and my birds completely free range. I have a huge area in the barn for them at night and during the day they run around my barn and the horses pasture and paddocks. They LOVE rummaging around the horse manure for bugs and Larvae!

  • sweetdream

    I am sooo glad to see that you also disagree the oft-believed notion that chickens are vegetarians! I’ve been arguing w/ my friends about this commercial on TV now about “farm raised chickens fed a pure vegetarian diet” that supposedly produces better eggs. “Hogwash!”, I say. I tell them how do you expect a 5# hen to produce a 100 Kcal egg every day that’s nearly 100% protein if she’s only getting grain that’s 8-9% protein? Those farms have to be supplementing with soy (true, it’s “vegetarian”, but who wants those phytoestrogens?) or whey! Regarding orange yolks, I supplement my flocks w/ daily treats of premium cat food and calf manna (I can’t free range cuz of varmints), and add a tablespoon of marigold powder (that I found on Amazon for $66 for a Kg). I get gorgeous orange eggs that I’m sure are full of Lutein and other xeoxanthines!

  • my chickens’ eggs just turned paler yellow! I found you while searching for the reason. There are only two laying and we just got 4 more pullets. I’m thinking that they have been stressed and perhaps foraging less(?) I’ll try providing them with more and see if this changes soon. I want my dark orange yolks back!

    • It’s possible that new pullets in the coop (or any environmental factors, like extreme weather changes, etc.) would stress out your laying hens. Give them a few weeks to adjust and keep feeding them fresh greens!

  • Hi Linda. Do you store any of your chicken garden veggies for the chickens during the winter months? If so, how do you do it?

    • No, because I still get plenty of fresh greens in my garden over the winter. Some of them are left over from summer/fall, so as they start to bolt, I pull the entire plants and give them to my chickens. I also feed them all my weeds.

  • Angel

    What about the fact that most, if not all, alfalfa is GMO in the United States? Healthy chickens eating horrible GMOs doesn’t seem like a great thing. What should you feed them then?

    • For backyard chicken keepers, I consider alfalfa to be a last resort if you can’t source fresh greens for your chickens. If you don’t grow your own greens, you can buy overstock produce from farmers’ markets or even a place like Whole Foods, which would ordinarily just throw them away.

      • Angel

        Thanks! That is a great suggestion! We don’t have any chickens yet, but I want to learn everything possible right now!

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