Sawyer, G., Webster, D., Narayan, E. 2019. Measuring wool cortisol and progesterone levels in breeding maiden Australian merino sheep (Ovis aries). PLOS ONE 14(4), e0214734.

Hormonal assessment tools are important for determining the reproductive success of production animals. This study used non-invasive wool assessment to quantify changes in progesterone and cortisol levels in reproducing female merino sheep. Wool samples were collected from a group of n = 46 maiden merino ewes (22–25 months old), naturally joined under natural light conditions in southern New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Three shearing opportunities were conducted as part of standard on-farm management practices. The wool samples were collected at three different dates during 2017, January (prior to rams being put out with the mob and to provide a baseline level since previous shearing in May 2016), September (during very late stages of gestation–approximately 2 weeks prior to parturition) and December (ewes had given birth and ~2-month-old lambs were at foot). Analysis of cortisol and progesterone was conducted concurrently from the same sample of wool. The hormones in wool samples quantified using commercially available cortisol and progesterone enzyme-immunoassay kits. Wool cortisol concentrations increased significantly (p = 3.04E-14) from pre-joining in January (1.33±0.12 ng/g) to late gestation in September (3.59±0.12 ng/g). Concentration of wool cortisol post-lambing in December (3.27±0.14 ng/g) did not decline significantly (p = 0.124) after gestation however remained significantly higher (p = 3.82E-10) than pre-joining levels. Wool progesterone (PG) concentrations increased significantly (p = 1.83E-33) from pre-joining (0.04±0.005 ng/g) in January to late gestation in September (5.53±0.13 ng/g) with a significant (p = 5.44E-59) decline observed in December (0.05±0.003 ng/g) to post- pregnancy concentrations. No significant difference was shown between pre-joining and post lambing PG concentrations (p = 0.057). Our results showed that non-invasive assessment of hormones in Merino sheep wool reflected significant increase in both cortisol and progesterone guided by pregnancy.

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