Field experiments were conducted at the farm of Qinghai Academy of Animal and Veterinary Science, Xining, China during 1996/97 to determine the effects of level of food intake on the urinary excretion of purine derivatives (PD), creatinine and nitrogen in yaks (Bos grunniens). Two experiments were carried out with three female yaks (initial body weight 173–187 kg, age 5 years). For Expt 1 a 3×3 Latin square experimental design was used with three levels of oat hay (nitrogen 13·5 g/kg dry matter (DM)) intake treatments, i.e. 0·3, 0·6 and 0·9 of voluntary intake (1·3–3·5 kg DM/d). Each treatment lasted for 17 days and the samples were collected during the last 7 days of each period. For Expt 2 the animals were fed the same oat hay as in Expt 1 for 3 weeks at a level equivalent to the estimated energy maintenance requirement (M) (1·5–2·2 kg DM/d). The intake was then reduced to 0·6 M on day 1, 0·3 M on day 2 and zero from day 3 until day 10. The animals were re-fed in the reverse order for 3 days. Of the PD, only allantoin and uric acid were present in the urine. The proportions of allantoin and uric acid were 0·86 and 0·14 respectively for both experiments. There was no response of creatinine and nitrogen excretions to feed intake. The rates of PD excretion per kg digestible organic matter (DOM) or digestible dry matter (DDM) were 13·5 and 13·6 mmol respectively. As expected, urinary PD excretion increased significantly (P<0·001) with increasing intake of DDM and DOM. The daily fasting PD, creatinine and nitrogen excretions amounted to 0·22±0·02 (S.E.), 0·25±0·01 mmol/kg W0·75 and 314±24·2 mg/kg W0·75 respectively. The results suggest that it is possible to establish a method for estimating intestinal microbial protein flow based on PD excretion in yaks.