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Predicting the profile of nutrients available for absorption: from nutrient requirement to animal response and environmental impact

  • J. Dijkstra (a1), E. Kebreab (a2), J. A. N. Mills (a3), W. F. Pellikaan (a1), S. López (a4), A. Bannink (a5) and J. France (a2)...

Current feed evaluation systems for dairy cattle aim to match nutrient requirements with nutrient intake at pre-defined production levels. These systems were not developed to address, and are not suitable to predict, the responses to dietary changes in terms of production level and product composition, excretion of nutrients to the environment, and nutrition related disorders. The change from a requirement to a response system to meet the needs of various stakeholders requires prediction of the profile of absorbed nutrients and its subsequent utilisation for various purposes. This contribution examines the challenges to predicting the profile of nutrients available for absorption in dairy cattle and provides guidelines for further improved prediction with regard to animal production responses and environmental pollution.

The profile of nutrients available for absorption comprises volatile fatty acids, long-chain fatty acids, amino acids and glucose. Thus the importance of processes in the reticulo-rumen is obvious. Much research into rumen fermentation is aimed at determination of substrate degradation rates. Quantitative knowledge on rates of passage of nutrients out of the rumen is rather limited compared with that on degradation rates, and thus should be an important theme in future research. Current systems largely ignore microbial metabolic variation, and extant mechanistic models of rumen fermentation give only limited attention to explicit representation of microbial metabolic activity. Recent molecular techniques indicate that knowledge on the presence and activity of various microbial species is far from complete. Such techniques may give a wealth of information, but to include such findings in systems predicting the nutrient profile requires close collaboration between molecular scientists and mathematical modellers on interpreting and evaluating quantitative data. Protozoal metabolism is of particular interest here given the paucity of quantitative data.

Empirical models lack the biological basis necessary to evaluate mitigation strategies to reduce excretion of waste, including nitrogen, phosphorus and methane. Such models may have little predictive value when comparing various feeding strategies. Examples include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Tier II models to quantify methane emissions and current protein evaluation systems to evaluate low protein diets to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment. Nutrient based mechanistic models can address such issues. Since environmental issues generally attract more funding from governmental offices, further development of nutrient based models may well take place within an environmental framework.

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