Review: Nutritional regulation of intestinal starch and protein assimilation in ruminants

D. L. Harmon, K. C. Swanson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Pregastric fermentation along with production practices that are dependent on high-energy diets means ruminants rely heavily on starch and protein assimilation for a substantial portion of their nutrient needs. While the majority of dietary starch may be fermented in the rumen, significant portions can flow to the small intestine. The initial phase of small intestinal digestion requires pancreatic α-amylase. Numerous nutritional factors have been shown to influence pancreatic α-amylase secretion with starch producing negative effects and casein, certain amino acids and dietary energy having positive effects. To date, manipulation of α-amylase secretion has not resulted in substantial changes in digestibility. The second phase of digestion involves the actions of the brush border enzymes sucrase-isomaltase and maltase-glucoamylase. Genetically, ruminants appear to possess these enzymes; however, the absence of measurable sucrase activity and limited adaptation with changes in diet suggests a reduced capacity for this phase of digestion. The final phase of carbohydrate assimilation is glucose transport. Ruminants possess Na+-dependent glucose transport that has been shown to be inducible. Because of the nature of pregastric fermentation, ruminants see a near constant flow of microbial protein to the small intestine. This results in a nutrient supply, which places a high priority on protein digestion and utilization. Comparatively, little research has been conducted describing protein assimilation. Enzymes and processes appear consistent with non-ruminants and are likely not limiting for efficient digestion of most feedstuffs. The mechanisms regulating the nutritional modulation of digestive function in the small intestine are complex and coordinated via the substrate, neural and hormonal effects in the small intestine, pancreas, peripheral tissues and the pituitary - hypothalamic axis. More research is needed in ruminants to help unravel the complexities by which small intestinal digestion is regulated with the aim of developing approaches to enhance and improve the efficiency of small intestinal digestion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S17-S28
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Animal Consortium 2020.


  • absorption
  • amino acid
  • carbohydrate
  • cattle
  • digestion
  • intestinal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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