A mechanistic lactation model, based on a theory of mammary cell proliferation and cell death, was studied and compared to the equation of Wood (1967). Lactation curves of British Holstein Friesian cows (176 curves), Spanish Churra sheep (40 curves) and Spanish Murciano–Granadina goats (30 curves) were used for model evaluation. Both models were fitted in their original form using non-linear least squares estimation. The parameters were compared among species and among parity groups within species.
In general, both models provided highly significant fits to lactation data and described the data accurately. The mechanistic model performed well against Wood's 1967 equation (hereafter referred to as Wood's equation), resulting in smaller residual mean square values in more than two-thirds of the datasets investigated, and producing parameter estimates that allowed appropriate comparisons and noticeable trends attributed to shape. Using Akaike or Bayesian information criteria, goodness-of-fit with the mechanistic model was superior to that with Wood's equation for the cow lactation curves, with no significant differences between models when fitted to goat or sheep lactation curves. The rate parameters of the mechanistic model, representing specific proliferation rate of mammary secretory cells at parturition, decay associated with reduction in cell proliferation capacity with time and specific death rate of mammary secretory cells, were smaller for primiparous than for multiparous cows. Greater lactation persistency of cows compared to goats and sheep, and decrease in persistency with parity, were shown to be represented by different values of the specific secretory cell death rate parameter in the mechanistic model. The plausible biological interpretation and fitting properties of the mechanistic model enable it to be used in complex models of whole-cow digestion and metabolism and as a tool in selection programmes and by dairy producers for management decisions.