The ruminal degradability, intake, and metabolism of diets differing in their relative rate of energy and nitrogen release in the rumen were characterized prior to their use in a study of the effects of high peripheral levels of ammonia on reproductive function in cattle. In a 2 x 2 factorial experiment, replicated four times, 16 heifers were offered isocaloric and isonitrogenous diets containing two sources of fermentable carbohydrate, fiber (slow energy release, SE) or starch (fast energy release, FE), and two rates of nitrogen release, which were either synchronous (S) or asynchronous (A) to that of energy release. Throughout the experiment, the amount of feed offered was held constant, at a level equivalent to 1.5 x maintenance. Four ruminally fistulated sheep were used to determine the in situ degradability of these diets. The 16 heifers were bled before feeding at 0800 and at 0900, 1000, 1100, 1200, 1400, and 1600 on d 0 (introduction to dietary treatments) and on d 4, 7, 11, 14, 21, and 28. Diet refusals were recorded at hourly intervals after feeding. The rapidly degradable nitrogen fraction of the SE:A and FE:A diets was greater than that of the SE:S and FE:S diets. Postprandial jugular plasma ammonia levels rose to a peak of around 300 micromol/L in heifers offered the SE:A and FE:A diets but did not rise in heifers offered the SE:S and FE:S diets. All feed offered was consumed within 1 h on diets SE:S and FE:S throughout the experiment. The proportion of feed consumed within 1 h of feeding declined from 100% on d 0 to around 70 and 56% by d 21 for heifers given the SE:A and FE:A diets, respectively. Peak postprandial plasma ammonia levels were accordingly lower, at around 160 micromol/L. Plasma urea levels averaged 7 mmol/L and were unaffected by dietary treatment. High plasma ammonia levels were associated with a suppression in the normal postprandial rise in insulin. There was no significant metabolic adaptation to high-ammonia-generating diets, and heifers given these diets modified their pattern of intake in an apparent attempt to avoid excessively high levels of plasma ammonia.