Oestrone sulphate, progesterone, total protein, Na and K concentrations in mammary secretions of Friesland sheep have been determined from 11 days before until 8 days after parturition. Mammary secretions were obtained on most days for at least 1 week before parturition in 9 of 14 ewes, and in all animals after lambing. Oestrone sulphate concentration had doubled on the morning of parturition compared with the value 24 h earlier, and this sharp rise was a useful indicator that delivery was imminent. Values continued to rise during the day of delivery, remained high for a further 24 h and then declined over the next 2 days. Progesterone, in contrast, decreased linearly between day –2 and day +2 when it reached baseline values.
Total protein concentration in pre-colostral and colostral mammary secretion (10–15 g/100 ml) was higher than that in goats, and decreased to a mean value of about 6 g/100 ml by day +8 after delivery. Na declined from about 55 mM on day –10 to 36 mM on day 0, whereas K increased from 20 to 29 mM. There was a sharp rise in K/Na, but this occurred after rather than before parturition and was not a useful predictor of parturition.
The onset of copious milk secretion occurred when oestrone sulphate in mammary secretions was high and progesterone was low, which is consistent with the hypothesis that the cessation of progesterone secretion is an important regulator of the onset of lactogenesis in sheep. Efficiency of milk secretion in the first 14 days of lactation was correlated, however, with the maximum oestrone sulphate concentration in colostrum on the day of parturition.