1. Fermentation in the rumen and nitrogen dynamics in the body were studied in mature Merino sheep given a maintenance ration of a low-quality-roughage diet containing mainly chopped wheat straw.
2. Intake of metabolizable energy was 3.49 MJ/d and of total N 6.2 g/d.
3. From measurements of volatile fatty acid (VFA) production rates and stoichiometric principles, it was calculated that 75% of the digestible organic matter intake was fermented in the rumen, making an estimated 44 g/68d microbial dry matter available to the animal.
4. The total flux of ammonia through the rumen NH3 pool, estimated by 15NH3 dilution methods, was 8.2 g N/d of which 3.5 g N/d was irreversibly lost; thus 4.7 g N/d was recycled, partly within the rumen (approximately 3.8 g N/d) and partly via endogenous secretions (approximately 0.9 g N/d). The extensive recycling of NH3-N within the rumen indicated that turnover of microbial N was considerable, and the total production of micro-organisms was at least twice the net outflow.
5. The proportion of the N in rumen bacteria derived from rumen ammonia was 62% and thus 38% was derived from other nitrogenous compounds such as peptides and amino acids.
6. The rates of transfer of blood urea into the rumen, estimated from the appearance of 14CO2 or 15NH3 in the rumen after intravenous single injections of [14C]-and [15N]urea, did not differ significantly and the mean transfer was 2.3 urea-N/d.
7. Estimates of the rate of irreversible loss of urea-C (i.e. urea synthesis in the body) were obtained by analysis of samples of either blood or urine obtained after a single, intravenous injection of [14C]urea. The two methods gave results that did not differ significantly. The estimated rate of urea synthesis in the body was 5.3 g N/d. Urea excretion rate was relatively low, i.e. 1.2 g N/d, and thus transfer of urea to the digestive tract was approximately 4.1 g N/d. Approximately 53% of the latter was transferred to the rumen, and 47% to the rest of the digestive tract. These results are discussed in relation to similar studies with sheep given other diets.
8. Various aspects of isotope-tracer methods and the errors that could occur in this type of study are discussed.