Due to the increased interest in preantral follicular physiology, non-invasive retrieval and morphological classification are crucial. Therefore, this study aimed: (1) to standardize a minimally invasive isolation protocol, applicable to three ruminant species; (2) to morphologically classify preantral follicles upon retrieval; and (3) to describe morphological features of freshly retrieved follicles compared with follicle characteristics using invasive methods. Bovine, caprine and ovine ovarian cortex strips were retrieved from slaughterhouse ovaries and dispersed. This suspension was filtered, centrifuged, re-suspended and transferred to a Petri dish, to which 0.025 mg/ml neutral red (NR) was added to assess the viability of the isolated follicles. Between 59 and 191 follicles per follicle class and per species were collected and classified by light microscopy, based on follicular cell morphology. Subsequently, follicle diameters were measured. The proposed isolation protocol was applicable to all three species and showed a significant, expected increase in diameter with developmental stage. With an average diameter of 37 ± 5 μm for primordial follicles, 47 ± 6.3 μm for primary follicles and 67.1 ± 13.1 μm for secondary follicles, no significant difference in diameter among the three species was observed. Bovine, caprine and ovine follicles (63, 59 and 50% respectively) were graded as viable upon retrieval. Using the same morphological characteristics as determined by invasive techniques [e.g. haematoxylin–eosin (HE) sections], cumulus cell morphology and follicle diameter could be used routinely to classify freshly retrieved follicles. Finally, we applied a mechanical, minimally invasive, follicle isolation protocol and extended it to three ruminant species, yielding viable preantral follicles without compromising further in vitro processing and allowing routine follicle characterization upon retrieval.