Two experiments were carried out with pregnant (experiment 1) and lactating ewes (experiment 2), to compare dry-matter (DM) intake, and total tract apparent digestibility, digesta kinetics and weight of digestive tract contents of Lacaune and Manchega sheep, with the aim of explaining possible differences between the breeds in voluntary food intake. In experiment 1, 20 3-year-old single-bearing pregnant ewes, 10 Manchega and 10 Lacaune, were permanently housed for the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. The diet used consisted of lucerne hay, offered ad libitum, supplemented with 0·3 kg/day of concentrate. DM and digestible DM intake per kg M0·75 were higher (P < 0·01) in Lacaune than in Manchega sheep. Breed did not affect total tract apparent digestibility, fractional rates of passage, transit time, total mean retention time, or weight of digestive tract contents. Changes in body weight and body condition score were similar between breeds. In contrast, Lacaune lambs tended (P = 0·09) to weigh less than Manchega lambs, suggesting genetic differences in the energy utilization between breeds in late pregnancy. Higher DM intake observed in Lacaune sheep may have been related to a higher energy demand for mammary development. In experiment 2, 32 3-year-old lactating multiparous ewes, 16 Manchega and 16 Lacaune, were permanently housed during the first 12 weeks of lactation. The experimental diet used was based on a mixture of maize silage and dehydrated lucerne (10: 1, fresh weight basis), offered ad libitum, and supplemented with 0·8 kg/day of concentrate. Milk, fat and protein yield as well as DM and digestible DM intake in Lacaune ewes was higher (P < 0·01) than in Manchega ewes. DM intake was constant in Lacaune sheep with advancing lactation, while in Manchega sheep DM intake decreased. Throughout this period Lacaune ewes lost 0·5 kg of body weight while Manchega gained 4·4 kg. Breed did not affect either apparent digestibility of DM, organic matter and neutral-detergent fibre, or fractional rates of passage, transit time and total mean retention time. The weight of total tract digestive contents was greater (P < 0·05) in Lacaune than in Manchega sheep, particularly in the reticulo-rumen. Results suggest that the scheme of selection in Lacaune dairy sheep has increased milk yield together with voluntary food intake, the latter being associated with an increase in the rumen fill capacity. The higher milk yield of Lacaune ewes cannot be attributed to the higher DM intake only; other factors, i.e. mobilization of fat reserves, are required to support this higher milk output.