The effect of nitrogen fertilization and stage of re-growth on the nutrititive value of kikuyu in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal.
Kikuyu pasture was fertilized at low and high levels of nitrogen (N), namely 50 and 200 kg N/ha, after mowing and clearing the plots, to induce low and high levels of N in the herbage. The subsequent growth was harvested at 20-, 30- and 40-d re-growth. These treatments were conducted in spring, summer and autumn. Treatments included level of N, stage of re-growth and season as variables in digestion trials using sheep and voluntary feed intake (VFI) trials using long yearling heifers in pens equipped with Calan gates. Nitrogen fertilization level had no impact on herbage dry matter digestibility (DMD). Stage of re-growth influenced digestibility in the spring and summer, the highest values recorded in the 30-d treatment. However, in the autumn, the 20-d re-growth recorded the greatest digestibility. Digestibility declined as the season progressed. Digestibility was not correlated to any of the chemical fractions measured in the herbage, including in vitro DM digestibility (IVDMD). Voluntary feed intake (VFI) followed a similar trend to digestibility, with peak values recorded for the 30-d treatment in the spring and summer, while the 20-d material induced the greatest intake in the autumn. Nitrogen fertilization had a negative impact on VFI over all seasons. Similarly to digestibility, VFI was not correlated to any of the chemical fractions measured, but was correlated to digestibility and moisture concentration of the herbage. Nitrogen degradability was determined using the in situ bag technique. Differences (p<0.05) were recorded for the quickly degradable N (a) and potentially degradable N (b) fractions within season, but not for the degradation rate of the slowly degraded fraction (c) per hour. The effective degradability (dg) was not influenced by N fertilization level in the spring, while N fertilization increased the dg values in the summer and autumn. Stage of re-growth exerted a positive effect (P<0.05) on the dg values. Rumen pH, rumen ammonia and blood urea nitrogen (BUN) levels were measured in rumen fistulated sheep. Rumen pH increased also with increasing level of N fertilization and declined with advancing stage of herbage re-growth in the autumn. Rumen ammonia increased with time of sampling post feeding to 4 hrs and then tended to decline by 6 hrs. Nitrogen fertilization level influenced rumen ammonia levels (p<0.05), with the low N level producing the lowest rumen ammonia levels. Rumen ammonia levels were highest at 20-d re-growth stage in summer and at the 40-d re-growth stage in autumn. DM concentration of the herbage had an inverse relationship with rumen ammonia. BUN levels were increased by high N fertilization and were positively correlated to rumen ammonia levels. Five years of digestibility data (82 digestion trials) and three years of intake trials (38 trials) data was pooled. These data, chemical composition of the herbage and the daily maximum temperatures, rainfall and evaporation recorded at and prior to the digestion and intake trials at Cedara were analysed using multiple regression techniques. Rainfall and temperature in the period of cutting and fertilization had a negative effect on digestibility, irrespective of the stage of re-growth at harvesting, 20, 30 or 40 days later, and a combination of the two proved significant, accounting for the most variance in DDM. Temperature depressed DMD by 11.4 g/kg DM per degree rise in temperature (Degrees C). Temperatures recorded during the cutting and fertilization phase were highly negatively correlated to VFI, irrespective of stage of re-growth. The DM concentration of the herbage as fed accounting for 32% of the variance in DMD, the NPN content of the herbage accounting for only 12.2% of the variance and the ash concentration of the herbage accounting for 15.9% of the variance in digestibility. Non-protein nitrogen was negatively correlated to VFI. Both DMD and VFI were highly negatively influenced by the moisture concentration of the herbage. Overall, the results of these trials demonstrated that environmental factors such as rainfall and temperature had a far greater impact on the digestibility of kikuyu herbage than the chemical composition, which had a minimal effect. Nitrogen fertilization did not influence herbage digestibility overall, but exerted a highly negative impact on voluntary intake.