Using Hormones to Control Reproduction

Reproduction in sheep can be controlled by artificially inducing estrus, ovulation, and fertilization. The use of hormones is effective if management, genetic selection of breeds, and strains of breeds allow for out-of-season breeding. For accelerated lamb production or out-of-season breeding, use sheep that most normally fit the desired reproductive pattern. To further alter the reproductive process, regulate conditions such as light, temperature, nutrition, association with the ram, and other environmental factors that affect reproduction.

Hormones, along with practical selection and management practices, are useful to:

In general, three types of hormones are used alone or in combination to achieve these objectives.

Progestogens. These are female sex hormones. They include those produced naturally as well as artificially. Progesterone is produced after ovulation by the corpus luteum, which forms on the ovary. Exogenous progestogens are used during the breeding season to synchronize estrus and ovulation. They also may be used during the anestrous period to help prepare the uterus for pregnancy and to sensitize the animal to be more responsive to hormones that cause estrus and ovulation. They can be administered by ear implant, daily injection, daily feeding, or by insertion of an impregnated sponge (pessary) placed in the vagina.

During the normal breeding season, progestogens can be used to synchronize estrus when used for a 10- to 12-day period. Estrus and ovulation usually occur between the second and fifth day following the end of treatment. However, fertility is usually suboptimal on the first cycle after progestogens are administered. Higher fertility is obtained from breeding at the second estrus. When ewes have been synchronized, they generally remain well synchronized through at least the first three post-treatment estrous periods.

Estrogens. Estrogens also are female sex hormones. They are produced naturally by the ovary or they can be produced synthetically. The estrogen concentration in the blood is highest just before and during estrus. The follicles on the ovary from which eggs are developed and released are the main source of estrogens in the female. The estrogen level, therefore, drops rapidly near the end of estrus, when ovulation occurs. Estrogens are responsible for behavioral estrus (or heat). In combination with progesterone, they sensitize the animal to respond to ovulating hormones. They also influence uterine development and the preparation of the uterus for pregnancy.

Gonadotropins. Gonadotropins are hormones that cause ovulation. They are produced by the pituitary gland as well as by certain other tissues. The gonadotropin that is used most successfully in controlling reproduction in sheep is follicle stimulating hormone. Additionally, human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) has been used to induce ovulation.