A database reviewing the metabolism of nitrogen (N) compounds from absorption to milk has been compiled from 14 published and unpublished studies (33 treatments) that measured the net flux of N compounds across the splanchnic tissues in dairy cows. Apparent N digestibility averaged 0·65, with this then partitioned between 0·34 excreted in urine and 0·31 secreted as milk.
Nitrogen metabolites are absorbed from the lumen of the gut into the portal vein, mainly as free amino acids (AA) and ammonia; these represented 0·58 and 0·57 of digested N, respectively. All of the ammonia absorbed was removed by the liver with, as a result, a net splanchnic flux of zero. Detoxification of ammonia by the liver and catabolism of AA results in production of urea as an end-product. Hepatic ureagenesis is a major cross-road in terms of whole body N exchange, being the equivalent of 0·81 of digested N. Therefore, salvage of a considerable part of this ureagenesis is needed to support milk protein synthesis. This salvage occurs via transfer of urea from the blood circulation into the lumen of the gut. On average, 0·47 of hepatic ureagenesis was returned to the gut via the portal-drained viscera (equivalent to 0·34 of digested N) with 0·56 of this then used for anabolic purposes e.g. as precursor N for microbial protein synthesis. On average, 0·65 of estimated digestible AA was recovered in the portal vein. This loss (0·35) is due to oxidation of certain AA across the gut wall and non-absorption of endogenous secretions. The magnitude of this loss is not uniform among AA and varies between less than 0·05 for histidine to more than 0·90 for some non-essential AA, such as glutamine.
A second database (six studies, 14 treatments) was constructed to further examine the subsequent fate of absorbed essential AA. When all AA are aggregated, the liver removed, on average, 0·45 of portal absorption but this value hides the considerable variation between individual AA. Simplistically, the AA behave as two major groups: one group undergoes very little hepatic removal and includes the branched-chain AA and lysine. For the second group, removal varies between 0·35 and 0·50 of portal absorption, and includes histidine, methionine and phenylalanine. For both groups, however, the efficiency of transfer of absorbed AA into milk protein decreases with increasing supply of protein. This loss of efficiency is linked directly with increased hepatic removal of AA from the second group and, probably, increased catabolism by peripheral tissues, including the mammary gland, of AA from the first group. Therefore, we must stop using fixed factors of conversion of digestible AA to milk in our predictive schemes and acknowledge that metabolism of AA between delivery from the duodenum and conversion to milk protein will vary with nutrient supply. New information evolving from re-analysis of the literature and recent studies will allow better models to be devised for the prediction of nutrient-based responses by the lactating cow. Consideration of biological efficiency, rather than maximal milk yield, will lead to systems that are economically more sensible for the farmer and that have better environmental impacts.