Thirty-nine British Friesian cows and 17 British Friesian heifers were used to measure the effects on milk yield, food intake and digestion, and N balance of increasing the protein concentration in the diet from 111 to 147 g crude protein/kg dry matter during the first 16 weeks of lactation. The comparison was made for animals given food either ad lib. or at a level which allowed them to gain 0·5 kg/d during the 8 weeks before parturition, and for animals given ad lib. diets of either 60:40 or 40:60 hay: concentrate ratio during early lactation. Milk yield was increased by a higher protein concentration in the diet (P < 0·01) and the increase was evident from the first week of lactation. Mean increases over the first 8 weeks of lactation were 3 kg/d for animals on the diet of high roughage content and 7 kg/d for animals on the diet of low roughage content. A higher crude protein content in the diet also increased food intake (P < 0·05) and digestion (P < 0·05), and the increases were greater for animals given the diet of low compared with high roughage content. Level of feeding before parturition did not influence food intake or milk yield and there were no differences between cows and heifers in their response to treatments. N balance over the first 10 weeks of lactation averaged –13 g/d for cows and 6 g/d for heifers (P < 0·025). and was not significantly altered by treatments. Mean N balance of all animals was estimated to increase from –37 g/d immediately after parturition to zero at 8 weeks of lactation. The results demonstrate that an increased protein concentration in the diet during early lactation is associated with increased food intake and digestibility of food, which are in turn largely responsible for higher levels of milk production.