The aim was to examine the effect of dietary urea on yield and quality of embryos in superovulated donor ewes, and on embryo survival in recipient ewes. Ewes (25 donors and 34 recipients) were offered 1·25 kg of grass meal containing 50 g urea per ewe per day on a group basis; the remaining ewes (30 donors and 32 recipients) received 1·25 kg untreated grass meal per day. After 5 days, ewes were synchronized using a progestagen pessary for 14 days and stimulated with pregnant mare serum gonadotropin. Donors were naturally mated; recipients were detected in oestrus using vasectomized rams. On day 4 following the onset of oestrus, embryos were recovered from donors, graded morphologically and cell number counted. Two embryos of acceptable morphological grade (≥ eight cells on day 4) were then surgically transferred to recipient ewes. Recipients were slaughtered between days 34 and 36 post oestrus. The mean number of embryos recovered per ewe [3·68 (s.e. 0·41) v. 3·83 (s.e. 0·45)] was not different between untreated and urea-treated ewes, respectively. However, urea treatment of donor ewes reduced the mean cell number per embryo (10·27 (s.e. 0·27) v. 8·17 (s.e. 0·29) for untreated and urea-treated donor ewes, respectively, P < 0·001). Similarly, the percentage of embryos recovered that had ≥ 10 cells and their mean cell number was reduced following urea treatment of donor ewes (82/113 (73%) v. 39/93 (42%), P < 0·01 and 11·61 (s.e. 0·20) v. 10·41 (s.e. 0·29), P < 0·001) for untreated and urea-treated ewes, respectively. The diet offered to recipient ewes had no effect on the number of ewes confirmed pregnant (24/32 (75%) v. 28/34 (82%)) or on embryo survival following transfer (45/64 (70%) v. 51/68 (75%) for untreated and urea-treated ewes, respectively, P > 0·05). Excess nonprotein nitrogen in the form of dietary urea reduced embryo quality. However, embryo survival in recipient ewes was not affected when good quality embryos were transferred. This suggests that the deleterious effects of excess dietary urea are due to alterations to the oocyte and (or) the oviductal environment rather than changes in the uterine environment.