Tansley Review No. 118: Post-ingestion metabolism of fresh forage

Alison Kingston-Smith, M. K. Theodorou

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

38 Citations (SciVal)


It is generally assumed that breakdown of plant material in the rumen is a process mediated by gut microorganisms. This view arose because of the identification of a pre-gastric fermentation in the rumen, brought about by a large and diverse microbial population. The extensive use of dried and ground feed particles in forage evaluation might have helped to promote this assumption. However, although the assumption might be correct in animals feeding on conserved forage (hay and silage) where the cells of ingested forage are dead, it is possible that with grazed (living) forage, the role played by plant enzymes in the rumen has been overlooked. In a grazing situation, plant cells that remain intact on entering the rumen are not inert, but will respond to the perceived stresses of the rumen environment for as long as they are metabolically viable. Metabolic adjustments could include anaerobic and heat-shock responses that could promote premature senescence, leading to remobilization of cell components, especially proteins. Moreover, contact of plant cells with colonizing microorganisms in the rumen might promote a type of hypersensitive response, in much the same way as it does outside the rumen. After fresh plant material enters the rumen and prior to extensive plant cell-wall degradation, there is often a phase of rapid proteolysis providing N in excess of that required to maintain the rumen microbial population. The inefficient use of this ingested N results in generation of ammonia and urea in exhaled breath and urine, which promotes welfare and environmental pollution concerns. Therefore an important research goal in livestock agriculture is to find ways of decreasing this initial rate of proteolysis in the rumen. This will benefit the farmer financially (through decreased use of feed supplements), but will also benefit the environment, as N pollution can adversely affect pasture diversity and ecology. This review considers the possible responses of plant metabolism to the rumen environment, and how such considerations could alter current thinking in ruminant agriculture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-55
Number of pages19
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2000


  • Anaerobic
  • Forage
  • Heat shock
  • Protease
  • Proteolysis
  • Rumen
  • Senescence


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