The objective of the present study was to examine whether yaks possess any adaptive mechanisms of nitrogen (N) metabolism to survive in the harsh foraging environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. A grazing experiment on native alpine meadows was conducted to determine availability of herbage biomass and body weight (BW) change of yaks over the year, followed by two indoor feeding trials to investigate adaptation mechanisms of N metabolism in yaks fed at similar intake level to grazing conditions. Three castrated males of each of three genotypes; yak (Bos grunniens), indigenous cattle (Bos taurus) and their crossbred - cattleyak (Bos taurus♂Bos grunniens♀), were used in the housed trials. Results showed that: i) Monthly herbage biomass production and daily grazing intakes by yaks over the year ranged from 220 to 4,664 kg DM per ha, and 1.90 to 8.50 kg DM, respectively. For about seven months each year, yaks suffer from malnutrition as a result of inadequate pasture conditions; ii) Urinary N excretion and N retention by yaks were significantly affected by feeding level, and yaks had a lower (p<0.05) average daily urinary N excretion (0.39 g/kg BW0.75) and a greater (p<0.05) N retention (-0.09 g/kg BW0.75) than indigenous cattle (0.47 and -0.16 g/kg BW0.75, respectively). Fasting daily urinary N excretion was greater (p<0.05) for indigenous cattle than yaks (353 vs. 248 mg/kg BW0.75). Purine derivative N excretion and purine derivative N index (PNI) increased with increasing feeding level, while the value of PNI was greater (p<0.05) for yaks and cattleyak (0.11 and 0.12, respectively) than for indigenous cattle (0.09) during the feeding trials. These results suggest that yaks could rely, in part, on the recycling of N to adapt to the harsh forage environment on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
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