One of the strangest things I remember growing up in the country, and one that I still think about all the time, is when I’d occasionally hear cows out in the field at night.
They didn’t sound panicked, they didn’t sound stressed. But you could hear them mooing and moving around, and the gentle clank of their bells. It sounded for all the world like it was just another day for them.
The difference being, of course, it was after the witching hour and pitch-black outside, far from the lights of the city!
I never really thought of cows as nocturnal. How are they able to move around like that in the dark? Can cows see in the dark?
Yes, cows see well in darkness, much better than people. This is due to the presence of the tapetum lucidum in their eyes which helps make the best possible use of all light in the environment.
It turns out that the cows were moving around in the pasture normally in the middle of the night and eating without a care in the world because they could in fact see.
I learned later on that many cows would arrest during the heat of the day and be more active at night sometimes. Interesting stuff!
But there is a lot more to know about how well cows can see at night, so I’ll give you a lot more answers down below.
How Do Cows See So Well in the Dark?
It’s no secret that cows are mainly active during the day, but don’t you think it is surprising how active they can be at night?
It may come as a surprise, but cows possess a special adaptation that allows them to see really well in darkness; this adaptation is a reflective layer in their eyes called the tapetum lucidum.
The tapetum lucidum is a layer of tissue located behind the retina that reflects light back through the eye. In essence, any available light is getting a “second pass” through the cells of the eye responsible for vision.
It essentially acts as a mirror, bouncing light back into the retina, and allowing for multiple chances to capture light and form an image.
This structure is also what causes the eyes of cows and other animals, like cats and dogs, to shine colorfully at night when light is on them. So that’s what that eerie glow is!
Overall, the tapetum lucidum is the key to the cow’s ability to navigate and function in low-light conditions.
While cows may not have night-vision goggles, their natural adaptations help them see better in the dark than we do, and nearly as well as some of their predators.
Do Cows Like the Dark, Generally?
Not really, though they will be active at night when they need or want to.
Cows are animals that have evolved to be active during the day, and their behaviors and physiological health are significantly impacted by the amount of daylight exposure they receive.
Being forced to stay active in darkness has been shown to have a significant impact on cow behavior and mood.
Studies have shown that cows that are exposed to limited daylight can exhibit signs of discomfort, stress, and decreased production of milk.
Conversely, cows that receive ample exposure to natural daylight tend to be more active, social, and have a better overall mood in addition to better overall health and production.
However, cows might voluntarily be active at night. If the day is very hot and stressful for cows, they might sleep or rest in the day and eat at night when it is cooler, especially if they know the surrounding area well.
That’s why I would always hear them roaming and frolicking out there during my youth!
Do Cows Have Poor Eyesight Overall?
Not poor, per see, but definitely better in some regards than others. You might say that cows have a unique set of eyes that provide them with certain advantages and disadvantages, as with any other creature.
One of the main advantages of cow eyesight is their large field of vision. Cows can see almost 360 degrees around them, meaning they have an excellent view of their surroundings and can detect possible predators approaching from nearly any direction.
However, cows have poor visual acuity overall, very limited and imprecise depth perception, and red-green colorblindness.
They cannot distinguish red and green, and rely mainly on shades of gray, black yellow and blue.
So while they see well enough, and have some nice specialized advantages they rely on, cows have what I would call “decent” vision overall.
What Do Cows Typically Do When It Gets Dark?
Cows, as a rule, typically stop eating and look for a safe place to rest or sleep when it gets dark. This is because cows are designed to eat primarily during the day and rest at night.
Once the sun sets, cows tend to huddle together in a secure area where they can find shelter from predators and inclement weather.
But, as I mentioned above, this is not a strict rule of cow behavior, and some herds as well as individual cows might nap intermittently throughout the day and graze or roam at night.
This behavior is especially likely when cows live in a broiling hot area with high daytime temps.
Should You Set Up Lights for Your Cows at Night?
That depends on the health of your cows and your goals. If they are happy, healthy and productive, you don’t need to set up lights for them inside or outside.
However, if your cows seem depressed, agitated or aren’t producing enough milk, you might want to keep them confined and provide more light to help keep them in the groove.
Daylight exposure is also critical for milk production, and more daylight is better; cows that receive adequate exposure to daylight tend to have better milk production rates and volume than those that don’t.
This is because daylight helps stimulate the release of hormones such as oxytocin, which is essential for milk production.
Lack of sunlight can also have a significant impact on a cow’s physical, reproductive, and behavioral patterns.
To ensure that cows receive adequate “daylight” exposure, cow farmers can use artificial lighting (of special daylight wavelengths) to ensure that cows receive the recommended amount of daylight, even during periods of limited natural light or when confined inside barns or other structures.
This approach is easier and cheaper than ever thanks to the preponderance of super-efficient and widely available specialty LEDs. If you live in an area with short days, this might be a mandatory procedure!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.