1. Pure swards of perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L. cv. Melle) or white clover (Trifolium repens L. cv. Blanca) were harvested daily as either primary growth (May-June) or mid- (July) and late- (August-September) season 4-week regrowths and offered to Friesian steers at two levels of feed allowance (18 and 24 g dry matter (DM)/kg live weight), to examine the effect of forage species and stage of harvest on nutrient digestion and supply.
2. The early- and mid-season grasses had low nitrogen (23 g/kg DM) and high water-soluble carbohydrate (169 g/kg) contents whilst the late-season grass had a higher N content (28 g/kg). All clover diets had high N (average 45 g/kg) and low water-soluble carbohydrate (89 g/kg) contents, and DM digestibility on all diets ranged from 0.77 to 0.83 (mean of two feeding levels).
3. Mean total rumen volatile fatty acid concentrations were significantly (P < 0.001) higher on the clover diets, whilst on the grass diets molar proportions of propionate showed a slight but not significant decline with advancing season and tended to be higher than those on the clover diets. Mean rumen ammonia concentrations were significantly (P < 0.001) lower on the early- and mid-season grasses (59 mg NH3-N/1) than the late-season grass (242 mg/l) and early-season clover (283 mg/l) which were all significantly (P < 0.01) lower than the mid-and late-season clovers (372 and 590 mg/l) respectively.
4. Rates of organic matter (OM) and N digestion in the rumen were estimated using established nylon-bag techniques and found to be high on all diets, but significant effects due to forage species (clover > grass; P < 0.001) were detected, whilst overall potential degradability in the rumen exceeded 0.89 for both OM and N on all diets.
5. Significantly (P < 0.001) more OM entered the small intestine of calves fed on white clover (10.2 g/kg live weight) than those fed on ryegrass (8.33 g/kg) and similar effects due to level of feeding (g/kg; low 7.9, high 10.6; P < 0.05) and stage of harvest (g/kg; early 8.3 v. mid 10.0, late 9.50; P < 0.05) were also detected. Non-NH3-N (NAN) flow (g/kg) to the small intestine was increased by forage species (grass 0.56, clover 0.69; P < 0.05) and stage of harvest (early 0.59 v. mid 0.65, late 0.64; P > 0.05) whilst NAN flow/N intake ranged from 0.96 to 1.65 g/g (mean 1.25) on the grass diets and from 0.64 to 0.84 g/g (mean 0.75) on the clovers (P < 0001).
6. Microbial N flow to the small intestine averaged 0.72 of duodenal NAN (grass 0.76, clover 0.69). Efficiency of microbial N synthesis was high on all diets, (g/kg OM truly digested in the rumen; grass 33.5, clover 36.3), as was the estimated extent of in vivo feed N degradation (g/g N intake; grass 0.75, clover 0.79).
7. A model is described to simulate the progress curves of the ratio, degraded N:degraded OM in the rumen for the six diets, using indices obtained in the present study. The results are ratified with the in vivo observations of N utilization in the rumen for the grass and clover diets.
8. It is concluded that both forage species and stage of harvest can significantly influence the processes of rumen digestion and nutrient supply, but with the fresh forages examined in the present study, it would appear that the processes of digestion in the rumen greatly outweighed the passage of potentially digestible nutrients from the rumen.