The effect of plant age on growing season chemical compositions and rumen fermentation characteristics was determined for three subspecies of big sagebrush: basin (Artemisia tridentata [Nutt.] subsp. tridentata), mountain (A. tridentata subsp. vaseyana [Rybd.] Beetle), and Wyoming (A. tridentata subsp. wyomingensis [Beetle and Young]). In vitro dry matter (IVDMD) and organic matter (IVOMD) disappearance, ammonia nitrogen (NH3N), and volatile fatty acid (VFA) content were determined at the end of two fermentation periods (24 h and 48 h) by combining rumen inocula with age-classified vegetative samples from each sagebrush subspecies. An additional one-way analysis of variance was performed to investigate potential differences among subspecies in IVDMD, IVOMD, total VFA, and NH3N following a 48-h fermentation period. Crude protein (CP), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), acid detergent fiber (ADF), and acid detergent lignin (ADL) components were also compared among sagebrush subspecies. Age class responses were variable across the spectrum of sagebrush subspecies and response variables. Where plant age effects were indicated, the small numeric differences probably have little biological or ecological significance. Mountain sagebrush was lower in IVOMD and total VFA concentrations (P < 0.0001) than basin and Wyoming. NH3N concentration and CP were higher (P < 0.0001) in basin sagebrush than the other two subspecies, while Wyoming sagebrush was higher in NDF, ADF, and ADL than basin and mountain subspecies (P < 0.0001). NH3N concentration for all three subspecies was lower than the minimum level (20 mg · 100 mL−1) required for uninhibited rumen activity. Overall, this research questions the contention that older sagebrush plants offer less nutritional value than younger ones, at least for growing season conditions. The results also provide information that can be utilized in designing supplementation strategies for domestic animals on diets with characteristically high utilization of big sagebrush.
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