In a small building in White Oak, TX, operations manager Brenda Thornton sits down at a computer. She brings up a sales list of Vet Advantage[superscript]tm calves, consigned by ranchers or stocker operators, for sale on the Internet.

There's nothing particularly unusual about that, considering the large number of special value-added calf (VAC) preconditioning programs available. But this one is different.

The Vet Advantage program is owned, directed and controlled exclusively by practicing local veterinarians, like Grady Ellis and Jesse Richardson, through a corporation called Vet Ranch Marketing Association (VRMA).

Unlike other such programs, it follows strict rules with compliance procedures built in, overseen, documented and certified by the local veterinarian. "He becomes the liaison between the producer and the feedlot," says Ellis, VRMA's president.

Vertical cooperation, not integration, is the ultimate aim of the Vet Advantage program, says Michael Spencer of Vet Alliance.

"The goal is supervised beef production, cooperation with vets, monitoring and recording everything we did with that calf from the beginning, in order to provide a safe product," he says. "Who better can address food safety than the animal care professional working in a conceptual relationship with producers."

Getting Started In 1994, Ellis, Richardson and a group of practicing veterinarians, aided by Spencer of Vet Alliance, began monitoring value-added calf programs such as Tex Vac. They decided the current beef quality assurance and preconditioning programs weren't getting the needed results.

"Those early quality assurance programs were like pushing rocks up a hill on the producer side, and even for the local veterinarian," says Spencer.

So they began working with feedlots, drug companies and industry representatives to develop a "non-breed specific tracking and marketing system." It was specifically aimed at the 30-cow producer with the veterinarian as key motivator.

"We knew we had to put together a program that met the demands of the industry, had policing and compliance, and information exchange between buyer and seller," Spencer says. "It gave ranchers the ability to build a reputation with their herd as well as bring extra dollars for predictable performance."

Controlled By A Nine-Member Board Incorporated in 1996, VRMA is controlled by a nine-member board of practicing veterinarians. A non-voting advisory board made up of representatives of drug companies and legal and financial institutions also helps. There are 70 members, mainly in Texas and the Southeast.

Through this system, a producer who wants to market Vet Advantage calves selects one of six health programs (see sidebar). He has the option to sell his calves on VRMA's Internet listings, retain ownership through yearling and feeding programs, or partner with other small producers to commingle less-than-potloads of calves.

Those first years, VRMA had to overcome two challenges:

* Not enough cattle numbers to attract buyers, and

* Opposition from some order buyers, auction barn operators and over-the-counter drug vendors who feared loss of business.

But interest is growing. Ellis is sticking to his long-term goal of signing up 200 veterinarians during the next 12 months and 500 over five to seven years. That's the number he needs to meet the program goal of marketing 500,000 Vet Advantage calves each year, he says.

Producers Pick Their Market Outlet Enrolled producers pick their individual market outlet - the VRMA Internet listing (www.vrmainc.com), local order buyers, auction markets and satellite auctions like Superior Livestock.

That arrangement satisfies Superior Livestock official Jim Odle, even though Superior has its own successful VAC program. "Anytime we can offer an animal that has been on a health management program, we're tickled to death to help promote it," he says.

Calves are sold by description on the Internet, although inspectors will soon take photos of each consignment animal with digital cameras. To get on-ranch data, one of the 15 professionally trained VRMA inspectors, usually an order buyer, goes to the ranch and evaluates frame size, genetic appearance, quality grades and estimated weights.

If sold on Superior Livestock, the area representative takes full responsibility for inspection, appraisals and video taping of animals.

One of Richardson's clients, Mike Smith of Athens, TX, put his Angus and Braunvieh/Brangus-sired calves on the Vet Advantage At Weaning program last fall. He tagged them and kept detailed records based on specific rules and provisions established by VRMA and certified by Richardson. He could give the shots himself if qualified, but he had to buy drug products through the Henderson County Vet Hospital.

Upon joining, Smith obtained a packet that he completed and returned to Richardson. He pays a per-head commission that includes the special Vet Advantage Allflex eartag that stays on the calf through to slaughter. A portion of the fee is returned to the veterinarian for his services.

Smith completed the program as scheduled. He sold the heavy end of the calf crop last October to two buyers who fed them in a Gruver, TX, feedlot. But, the market turned bad and he could not retain ownership, so he sold his 56 steers and 36 heifers to Kevin Sutherlin, another of Richardson's clients, last December. Sutherlin needed cattle to make a full load.

The two ranchers worked out a 35 cents/lb. gain grazing deal. They kept the cattle in Smith's pastures where Richardson had helped Smith start a rotational grazing system.

"This was a tremendous educational process for both of these young guys," Richardson says.

He says he saw a big change in Smith's operation after they discussed health matters, genetics, management and nutrition programs through the Vet Advantage program last fall. Smith agrees.

Use Consultants "I use Jesse on a consulting basis on my herd health program," he says. "He answers questions and has to sign off that I've done all the correct procedures and vaccinations. I leave it to him to make sure shots are given correctly in the right places and right kinds. This gives me more comfort when the vet oversees the program."

After two years, Vet Advantage is now a recognized brand of performance, Spencer claims. The cattle consistently outperform other marketing alternatives and demonstrate the economic benefits of pre-shipment health and preconditioned feeding programs.

Spencer is convinced the Vet Advantage program works, citing Smith's experience with the cattle he sent to a Gruver, TX, feedlot three weeks before a disastrous blizzard hit last October. The lot owner was astonished. "The medicine cost was 74 cents/hd versus the average cost on the Texas Ranch to Rail program last year of $27/hd," Smith tells BEEF.

The first pilot program of 5,000 Vet Advantage calves was shipped in 1995 to feedlots and stocker operators in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. "We kept our fingers crossed on the first run," Spencer says. "The cattle performed well - no death loss, few treats."

Twenty-five loads of Vet Advantage calves sold during the last five months of 1997 averaged $25 more per head than comparable kinds sold through the local market. The steers and heifers ranged from 462 to 677 lbs.

Tracking Cattle Performance The primary goal of VRMA is to process, track and report on cattle performance, says Spencer. It hopes to develop a brand that builds a "reputation" through predictable performance. Three factors provide predictable performance, he says.

* Cooperation between producer and veterinarian in developing the right health program for that ranch.

* The assurance of careful selection and handling of drug products.

* Quality assurance and records (verified by the local veterinarian) that assure confidence to buyers in all markets that a Vet Advantage calf is what it really is.

Producers enrolling their calves in VRMA's Vet Advantage Program have six options:

* Head Start - Single-Vac Program: requires initial modified live virus IBR, PI3 , BRSV, BVD, initial Pasteurella and 7-8 way clostridial vaccinations at 3-4 weeks preweaning with no eartags. The Double-Vac program prescribes the booster shots at weaning time before shipping.

* The Pre-Weaning Program: At 2-4 months of age, initial 7-8 way clostridial; 30-40 days pre-weaning, initial IBR, PI3, BRSV, BVD and Pasteurella with booster 7-8 way clostridial and at veterinarian's option, Lepto and H. somnus injections; at weaning, booster IBR, PI3, BRSV and Pasteurella shots, then prescribed nutrition programs are fed for 45 days before shipping.

* The Calf At Weaning Program is designed for those who can't work calves at 30-40 days preweaning. At weaning, initial IBR, PI3, BRSV, BVD and Pasteurella, booster 7-8 way clostridial, and Lepto and/or H. somnus shots, if prescribed, are given; 14-21 days later, booster IBR, PI3, BRSV, BVD and Pasteurella and Lepto and/or H. somnus, if prescribed. The last 24-day feeding program continues until shipment.

* In the Calf 60 Program for purchased weaned calves of unknown origin, calves are held for at least 60 days and follow the Advantage Yearling Program.

* Advantage Yearling and Yearling Plus Programs: health programs prescribed for weaned calves of unknown origin that will go on full-term backgrounding programs. Initial vaccinations and other practices are given on arrival and boostered 14-21 days later. Calves certified through the Pre-Weaning and At-Weaning program automatically qualify for the yearling program.

Each program has specific health, management and quality assurance guidelines established by VRMA and administered by the local veterinarian in each area, who is the liaison and motivator. Here are general rules:

* Calves to be certified must come from a producer's own cow herd or purchased into a producer's own operation acceptable to the veterinarian.

* All animal health products must be acquired and administered by the veterinarian, although (if qualified) the producer may give the shots.

* All programs require these treatments: 1) castrating by knife prior to weaning or upon arrival in the Advantage Program; 2) dehorning and tipping; and 3) treating for internal and external parasites at prescribed program periods.

* Rules give strict instructions for injection sites, such as location, type of needle used, and where to administer viral vaccines, Pasteurella and clostridial bacterins. No more than one set of killed virus vaccines and at least one set of modified-live virus vaccines are administered to all Advantage calves.

* Producers are responsible for maintaining complete records on all calves in the program, including veterinary bills and feed bills. The documents are required prior to shipping.

The most popular programs so far in areas of plentiful pastures and hay supplies are the Vet Advantage Calf Pre-Weaning or At-Weaning programs. They are geared for producers who can retain calves 45-50 days past weaning before shipping.

But few calves will be backgrounded in East Texas and the Southern Plains this fall. Searing heat and drought has destroyed hay and pasture supplies. "I'm encouraging my producers to go ahead and sell their calves," veterinarian Jesse Richardson, Athens, TX , says. "No feed, no hay, the pastures are gone."

As a result, several of Richardson's clients put their calves on the Vet Advantage Head Start program. They were sold on the Superior video auction at weaning time and weighed 350-400 lbs. when delivered in early August. Other clients will wean and sell their calves this month and next. "We don't want their cows to lose condition so they can hold on to their breeding herds," Richardson says.