The nutritive value of forage for herbivores has been for a long time determined by the concentration in protein and, hence in nitrogen (N), the concentration in different minerals (P, K, Ca, Mg, and oligo-elements), and the in vivo dry matter (DM) digestibility. Forage DM digestibility, the proportion of ingested DM being metabolized by ruminant animals has been related to different components of plant tissue composition such as Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) and Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF); the NDF concentration represents an estimate of cell wall content while the ADF concentration is an estimate of the more lignified cell wall content. Forage nutritive value is generally analyzed by relating the attributes of nutritive value to plant phenology, in order to predict the decline of these attributes with plant age. A more functional approach, initially developed for the analysis of N concentration dynamic analysis (Lemaire et al. 2008 and Lemaire et al. 2019), and extended for digestibility for this review, is based on the assumption that above-ground plant mass (W) is composed of two compartments: (i) the metabolic compartment (Wm), associated with plant growth process scaling with leaf area, having a high N concentration (%N), and a high Digestibility (%D); (ii) the structural compartment (Ws) associated with architectural plant development, scaling with plant height and thickness and having low %N and %D. With the postulate that Wm is allometrically related to W (Wm = c × Wα
with α < 1), the ontogenetic decline of both %N and %D as the plant gets bigger and forage mass increases can be explained, and the purely empirical statistical approach of forage quality based on plant phenology can be replaced by a more mechanistic and comprehensive analysis linking forage production and forage quality dynamics within the same functional approach for a better understanding of genotype-environment-management interactions.
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