Treat your sows like highly trained athletes and they will survive and thrive in your herd.

Lean genetic lines produce finely tuned animals that are akin to athletes, says Rick Howe. Like the marathon runner, breeding stock must be trained and conditioned to stay in superb shape, or they will quickly fall out of the race.

That's what's happening all too often to today's top sows, according to Rick Howe, sow manager for Pork Technologies, an Ames, IA-based professional management company.

“We are dealing with such a lean animal today, with such a small backfat, that there is no room for error,” he says. “If we don't feed and manage these animals right, they are going to crash and fall apart on us, and we are going to end up dragging them out the door.”

Average sow attrition/replacement rate is 50% at the 16 farms in Iowa and Minnesota managed by Pork Technologies. That's based on a 42% annual culling rate and 8% sow mortality rate, says Howe.

Gilt Development

The first step to sow longevity is gilt development. One of those 16 farms, partly owned by Howe, is a 3,200-sow, farrow-to-wean unit near Ames, IA. Gilts are selected as replacements at 10 lb. and housed in a separate building for isolation and acclimation. Gilts must meet four minimum criteria before being bred: 210 days of age, 300 lb. bodyweight, .75 in. backfat and two heat cycles.

“Gilts are always going to be the highest percentage of any parity in your unit,” explains Howe. “Generally, in our operation, we are running 18-20% of our animals as gilts. If we don't prepare those gilts right from the start, nothing down the road is going to help us.”

Moreover, to keep your breeding program on track, set a goal of maintaining at least 90% of your first-litter gilts. If you fall short, it's the first warning sign there are problems either in gilt development or culling areas, he says.

If highly productive gilts aren't properly developed, they will quickly milk down in a few litters. Consequently, these more productive sows are culled, leaving the less-productive, but better-conditioned sows in the herd, Howe stresses. Therefore, non-productive sow days will increase.

A better way to gauge sow production is the farrow-to-farrow interval, not just litters/sow/year. His goal, which he works constantly to achieve, is 142 farrow-to-farrow days: 115 days gestation, 17 days lactation, seven-day wean-to-first service interval and three-day service to reservice or service to remove.

At Pork Tech, Howe says taking care of sows is helping the farms they manage close in on optimum parity distribution goals: 20% Parity 1 (P1), 18% P2, 45% P3 to P5 and about 17% P6 and above.

Water Management

One of the biggest keys to keeping good sows in the herd is proper nutrition during lactation. “If we are going to maximize the intake of these lean genetic animals, water, along with room temperature, is a limiting factor in feed intake,” he says. Farrowing rooms are maintained at a maximum of 65°F to encourage feed consumption; heat lamps provide warmer heat zones for piglets.

Declares Howe: “The biggest mistake the hog industry makes today is that 99.9% of all farrowing crates use standard water nipples used in finishing.” They will only supply 64 oz. of water per minute. “It's almost like a sow drinking out of a straw.”

No matter what watering system is used, sows will only drink for 20 seconds at a time, he says. To boost sow water consumption at his farm (17 rooms of 28 farrowing crates), Howe had workers install cattle-type nipple drinkers that provide 128 oz. of water per minute for lactating sows. The high-volume, low-pressure waterers are located right over the feeders. That way, excess water will fall into the feeder and not create unwanted moisture in the crate.

Farrowing and lactating sows need 8 gal. of water/day in cooler weather, 10 gal./day in summer. “Eighty-two percent of milk is water, so if we are restricting water intake, we are also restricting feed intake and milk production,” observes Howe.

Nursing sows are expected to wean about 10 pigs/litter. Averaging 3 lb. at birth, pigs will grow to 12-13 lb. on a 17-day weaning schedule, weaning 1,400 pigs/week at Howe's farm. Ten pigs gaining 10 lb., birth to weaning, totals 100 lb. of growth per litter. That requires a lot of milk production, he points out.

In the 75 × 720-ft. gestation/breeding barn, troughs are used to feed and water sows. “We went with one large gestation building because I think we are able to stabilize health throughout the herd better than having several gestation barns,” says Howe. “Here every animal shares a common air space and nose-to-nose contact in the water/feed area.”

In addition to quantity, water quality is also important, Howe stresses. To provide consistent, quality water, rural water is purchased and piped into a 25,000-gal. holding tank for gestating and lactating sows at Howe's farm. It costs $16,000/year.

That may sound like a big investment. “When I look at the cost of water at 23 cents/13-lb. pig produced, and that pig being worth $1/lb., all I need is .2 lb. extra weight out of my pigs to offset that cost. And we are seeing a 20% increase in water intake in the lactating sows on our farm compared to the other Pork Tech operations, that don't have the cattle-type nipple waterers,” he says.

If water consumption drops for two to three days, it's an early warning sign of health problems or some nipples being plugged, he says.

A common view is that water is water. “It's the least talked about resource because everybody assumes water is good,” expresses Howe. But the water at some units is for consumption by hogs only. Some people mistakenly believe inferior quality water is okay for the animals to drink, but it may produce urinary tract or other disease problems, plus restrict feed intake, he says.

Water samples are tested for bacteria and nitrates twice/year at Pork Tech sow units.

Feed Management

There are no feed carts or feed scoops at Howe's farm for feeding sows. “To me, the most important thing to feeding that sow is that a machine has to do it, so we can provide feed on the animal's schedule and not on ours,” he explains.

On most farms, sows get hand fed twice a day. However, the proper method is to feed lactating sows many small meals a day — again treating them as athletes in training.

“We in the pork industry are trying to get 12 to 16 lb. of feed in that lactating sow each day and about 8 lb. in her all at once,” says Howe.

That's like stuffing ourselves with a big Thanksgiving meal, he retorts. We feel tired and uncomfortable after that big meal — and sows probably don't feel much different with hand feeding regimens, he suggests.

Instead, at Howe's Pork Tech farm, he had an automatic, drop-feeding system installed. The Cablevey feeding system permits the producer to dial in a setting anywhere in the one to six range to provide, individual, precise, around-the-clock feedings. At Howe's farm, lactating sows are fed about 4 lb. every six hours on a 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. schedule. In gestation, sows are fed twice daily, at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Howe believes the system provides vast improvement in feeding accuracy. A hand scoop usually holds 3 to 4 lb. of feed, some of which may end up on the slats or in the pit, he speculates. The automatic drop system places all feed directly into the feeder (lactation) or trough (gestation), training sows to eat smaller, fresher meals.

The automated feeding schedule eliminates human error and feeding problems at night and on weekends. It also allows lactating sows to be fed more like their fast-growing counterparts in the finishing barn, he says.

Howe measures the success of a feeding system against the percent of animals bred back within seven days after weaning. “We are averaging 95% bred back by Day 7 and are running close to 90% by Day 6,” he says.

That result is reinforced by sow condition. Visual appraisal shows that sows are maintaining condition and losing little weight from parity to parity — almost unheard of with today's breeding stock, he says.

Realigning Goals

“I have a little bit different philosophy,” Howe asserts. “I want my people to spend 90% of their time caring for a sow and preparing that sow for the next litter and 10% of their time taking care of the baby pigs.

“Most people spend 90% of their time trying to reduce preweaning mortality by 2% or two-tenths of a pig/litter, when if they spend more time on sows, they can pick up 1 to 2 more pigs live born,” he says.

Make sure sows get up after every feeding. Check to see that feed is cleaned up. If feeders are totally cleaned out, then consider increasing feeding level to maximize intake.

Consider setting a target for lactation feed intake/sow/year. Howe figures his herd achieves 2.5 litters/sow/year and a 12.2-lb. weaning average on the 17-day weaning schedule.

Twelve pounds times 42.5 days equals 510 lb. of lactation intake/sow/year, meaning Howe's farm is already exceeding Pork Tech's goal of 500 lb.

Also, too many people worry about meeting pigs/sow/year goals, says Howe. His goal is to produce 300 lb. of weaned pigs/sow/year. At 23.3 pigs/sow/year and the average weaning weight of 12.2 lb., he's achieving 284 lb. of weaned pigs/sow/year.

“That's what people need to focus on, because all the research shows that a 1-lb. heavier pig coming out of the nursery is seven days earlier to market,” he adds.

Weigh your pigs to know if your operation is making progress. In five years, those who don't watch such details, won't be competitive in the hog business, he predicts.

Improved Drop Feeding System

The Cablevey automated drop feeding system by Intraco, Inc. has been around a long time.

But says President Phil Hall, whose father started the company in 1971, a breakdown in fit and finish motivated the company to recently upgrade design to make it user-friendly and trouble-free.

The main thing that was changed for the hog industry was the drop dispenser that holds the feed. It now has a patented, “positive close” feature that “slams the feed doors shut” to prevent overfeeding and feed waste in both gestation and farrowing, he says.

The new AccuDial drop allows producers to dial in any amount from 1-6 lb. for precise feeding.

Hall says that Cablevey has elevated the overall quality of the equipment. Every component from the cable, to the quality of the metal and paint finish has been upgraded.

The company's customers claim, through a random survey of 20 producers who switched from hand feeding to the Cablevey system, that labor decreased 45-50%, total lactation feed intake increased 25%, average breed back increased by 8% and weaning weights were boosted by 1-2 lb.

For more information on the Cablevey feeding system, write the company at P.O. Box 148, 2397 Hwy. 23 S, Oskaloosa, IA 52577. Call toll-free (800) 247-3344, (641) 673-8451. E-mail info@cablevey.com or visit their Web site www.cablevey.com.