Full Paper

Strategies for optimizing nitrogen use by ruminants

S. Calsamigliaa1 c1, A. Ferreta1, C. K. Reynoldsa2, N. B. Kristensena3 and A. M. van Vuurena4

a1 Department of Animal and Food Sciences, Servei de Nutrició i Benestar Animal, Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, 08193-Bellaterra, Spain

a2 Department of Agriculture, University of Reading, Earley Gate, Reading, RG6 6AR, UK

a3 Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Aarhus University, DK-8830, Tjele, Denmark

a4 Wageningen UR Livestock Research, P.O. Box 65, 8200 AB Lelystad, The Netherlands


The efficiency of N utilization in ruminants is typically low (around 25%) and highly variable (10% to 40%) compared with the higher efficiency of other production animals. The low efficiency has implications for the production performance and environment. Many efforts have been devoted to improving the efficiency of N utilization in ruminants, and while major improvements in our understanding of N requirements and metabolism have been achieved, the overall efficiency remains low. In general, maximal efficiency of N utilization will only occur at the expense of some losses in production performance. However, optimal production and N utilization may be achieved through the understanding of the key mechanisms involved in the control of N metabolism. Key factors in the rumen include the efficiency of N capture in the rumen (grams of bacterial N per grams of rumen available N) and the modification of protein degradation. Traditionally, protein degradation has been modulated by modifying the feed (physical and chemical treatments). Modifying the rumen microflora involved in peptide degradation and amino acid deamination offers an alternative approach that needs to be addressed. Current evidence indicates that in typical feeding conditions there is limited net recycling of N into the rumen (blood urea-N uptake minus ammonia-N absorption), but understanding the factors controlling urea transport across the rumen wall may reverse the balance to take advantage of the recycling capabilities of ruminants. Finally, there is considerable metabolism of amino acids (AA) in the portal-drained viscera (PDV) and liver. However, most of this process occurs through the uptake of AA from the arterial blood and not during the ‘absorptive’ process. Therefore, AA are available to the peripheral circulation and to the mammary gland before being used by PDV and the liver. In these conditions, the mammary gland plays a key role in determining the efficiency of N utilization because the PDV and liver will use AA in excess of those required by the mammary gland. Protein synthesis in the mammary gland appears to be tightly regulated by local and systemic signals. The understanding of factors regulating AA supply and absorption in the mammary gland, and the synthesis of milk protein should allow the formulation of diets that increase total AA uptake by the mammary gland and thus reduce AA utilization by PDV and the liver. A better understanding of these key processes should allow the development of strategies to improve the efficiency of N utilization in ruminants.

(Received September 24 2009)

(Accepted March 08 2010)

(Online publication May 17 2010)


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