Talk to Rick Howe about his collegiate football days and you pick up a lot more than football anecdotes. You start to understand what makes him so successful at managing sows and their piglets.

"Actually, I was a walk-on at Iowa State University," the former defensive tackle confides. Making the team, even the starting lineup, wasn't enough. In 1974, he was named the Cyclones' team captain and earned All-American honors. He even went on to play professional football, but he doesn't like to make a big deal about it.

Howe's "set-high-goals-and-do-what-it-takes-to-attain-them" attitude was a key to his football success. It also serves him well in his current position as director of sow operations for Pork Tech - a 23,000-sow operation based in Ames, IA.

His two primary goals at Pork Tech are: 1. Increase the percentage of sows bred by seven days postweaning. "To me, this directly influences subsequent litter sizes," he says. "While 90% is good, our numbers are climbing to 93-96%."

2. Boost weaning weights. "An extra pound at weaning translates to a 7-lb. heavier pig coming out of the nursery," Howe explains. "This correlates to getting pigs to market weight 10 days to two weeks earlier, which is critical because that's when pigs are consuming a lot of feed."

Healthy Pigs Grow Faster In 1998, the average prewean mortality rate for piglets farrowed and weaned on U.S. farms was more than 13%, PigCHAMP records reveal. While this high percentage is not due to a single reason, veterinarians agree infectious disease is a major contributor.

"From the minute piglets are born, they constantly are challenged by a number of bacteria," says University of Minnesota veterinarian, Scott Dee. "No matter how good the operation is, it's tough to eliminate bacteria from the environment."

Terry Cowan, technical service veterinarian for Pharmacia & Upjohn Animal Health, agrees, adding that pigs battle two major sources of infection: those present in the environment and the shedding of bacteria from the sow.

Common pig processing procedures such as castration, taildocking and needle teeth clipping help pigs get off to a better start. But, Cowan points out, "they also cause wounds, providing another avenue for bacterial infection."

When baby pigs are challenged by infection, it affects their performance and survival rates, as well as sow productivity, Howe says.

"If piglets become sick, their appetite often is suppressed. This results in smaller pigs at weaning, which can be reflected all the way to market.

"It's also important to note that not only is the prewean pig affected, the sow's productivity is, too. When sick piglets stop drinking the sow's milk, which she already has produced, the sow may go off feed. This creates a lot of problems in our system and makes it difficult to reach our number-of-sows-bred-by-Day 7 goal."

Antibiotic's Role Howe's answer to controlling prewean infection is to incorporate an antibiotic in the prewean pig health program. "By giving piglets a broad-spectrum antibiotic and using good processing techniques, we minimize the chance for prewean infection," he says. "Healthier pigs grow better, resulting in increased weaning weights."

A recent worldwide trial confirms the benefits Howe is finding at Pork Tech. The study involved 5,427 pigs and six operations in China, Japan, Spain and the U.S. It focused on the effects of an antibiotic on prewean pig survival rates and weight gain of medicated pigs vs. a non-medicated controls.

Pigs in the treatment group received Naxcel Sterile Powder intramuscularly at a dose of 3 mg./kg. once on Day 1, Day 7 and at weaning (Day 20). Pigs in the placebo group were injected with sterile water.

Cowan, who helped conduct the Pharmacia & Upjohn-sponsored trial, says that piglets given the antibiotic showed these results:

* A significant reduction in prewean death rate. Death losses dropped from 11% in the non-medicated control group to 7.5% in the treatment group, an overall reduction in prewean mortality of 32%.

* An increase in average daily gain (ADG) from birth to weaning, attributed to healthier pigs. This effect continued through to the end of the trial (seven days postweaning) for an overall improvement of 8.5%.

* A decrease in lightweight pigs at weaning, attributed to healthier pigs. Using the antibiotic reduced the number of lightweight pigs, those weighing less than 8 lb., by 16.2% (see Figure 1).

Derald Holtkamp, Iowa State University veterinarian, reviewed the data and explained the benefits in dollars and cents.

"For a 1,000-sow operation averaging 10.5 pigs born alive/litter and weaning 2.3 litters/female/year, this represents an extra 1,260 standard pigs sold and 410 fewer substandard (lightweight) pigs per year," he says.

"If the market value of a standard piglet at weaning is $32, and substandard pigs are valued at $16, adopting the program with Naxcel can increase revenue by $33,766 per 1,000 sows/year.

"The investment required for a 1,000-sow operation is approximately $9,577 (43 cents/pig includes cost of the antibiotic and labor). As a result, the return for every $1 invested is $3.53," Holtkamp notes.

Those results are consistent with his field experiences, says Dee, who has done consultations for both U.S. and international producers.

"We ran a trial with Naxcel in Spain with 5,000 pigs," he says. "The results mirrored the ones we're finding in the U.S. We had up to a pound of daily weight gain in the nursery, reduced the days to market by 25 to 30 days and reduced medication costs by $2 per pig."

Diagnostics Are Important Experts agree on the importance of working with a veterinarian to thoroughly diagnose problems, so an antibiotic program can be selected using solid information. "We typically try to identify the bacteria, so we know what disease agents we are dealing with," Dee says. "Then we select an antibiotic based on its susceptibility to those agents."

Pork Tech's Howe and his assistant, Kevin Neumann, oversee 18 sow units. "Each farm is unique and has different health challenges," Howe says. "Our strategy is to proactively evaluate each herd and address challenges before they turn into major problems."

To be effective, antibiotic usage must be coupled with proper management techniques. While the first 48 hours of a pig's life are critical, Howe says the first two hours are the most important.

"That's prime time," he explains. "Attending farrowings is very important because it's the only way to ensure that the pigs are warm and getting ample colostrum. Making sure the pigs have colostrum and the antibodies to protect them makes a big impact on weaning weights."

To avoid stressing piglets, Howe waits 24 hours before clipping tails and needle teeth. "That's also when we give the first injection of Naxcel," he adds.

Good processing techniques are invaluable. "We invest a lot of time training employees to properly castrate pigs and clip their needle teeth and tails," Howe says. "We want to make sure they do what's best for the sow and piglets."

Howe's demand for good husbandry skills has paid off. So has his relentless drive for improvement. "Last quarter, PigCHAMP recognized us for raising the most pigs per sow per year in Minnesota," he says. "The previous quarter we placed sixth. We keep getting better."