Transrectal ultrasonography of ovaries was performed each day in non-prolific Western white-faced (n = 12) and prolific Finn ewes (n = 7), during one oestrous cycle in the middle portion of the breeding season (October–December), to record the number and size of all follicles ± 3 mm in diameter. Blood samples collected once a day were analysed by radioimmunoassay for concentrations of LH, FSH and oestradiol. A cycle-detection computer program was used to identify transient increases in concentrations of FSH and oestradiol in individual ewes. Follicular and hormonal data were then analysed for associations between different stages of the lifespan of the largest follicles of follicular waves, and detected fluctuations in serum concentrations of FSH and oestradiol. A follicular wave was defined as a follicle or a group of follicles that began to grow from 3 to ± 5 mm in diameter within a 48 h period. An average of four follicular waves per ewe emerged during the interovulatory interval in both breeds of sheep studied. The last follicular wave of the oestrous cycle contained ovulatory follicles in all ewes, and the penultimate wave contained ovulatory follicles in 10% of white-faced ewes but in 57% of Finn ewes. Transient increases in serum concentrations of FSH were detected in all animals and concentrations reached peak values on days that approximated to follicle wave emergence. Follicular wave emergence was associated with the onset of transient increases in serum concentrations of oestradiol, and the end of the growth phase of the largest follicles (≥ 5 mm in diameter) was associated with peak serum concentrations of oestradiol. Serum FSH concentrations were higher in Finn than in Western white-faced ewes during the follicular phase of the cycle (P < 0.05). There were no significant differences in serum concentrations of LH between Western white-faced and Finn ewes (P > 0.05). Mean serum concentrations of oestradiol were higher in Finn compared with Western white-faced ewes (P < 0.01). It was concluded that follicular waves (follicles growing from 3 to ≥5 mm in diameter) occurred in both prolific and non-prolific genotypes of ewes and were closely associated with increased secretion of FSH and oestradiol. The increased ovulation rate in prolific Finn ewes appeared to be due primarily to an extended period of ovulatory follicle recruitment.
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