At some point in the not-so-distant future, preconditioned calves will become the industry standard. It will happen not because of premiums paid to producers, but because feedyards and other calf buyers will demand preconditioned calves. This new standard will evolve because ever-tighter margins mean our industry can't afford the sickness, death loss, poor performance and quality assurance losses from calves without the preconditioning background. At some point, calves that have not been preconditioned will have marginal value.

The LMA-VACC program provides guidelines for producers to follow that range from a basic vaccination program to a vaccination and 30-day weaning regimen. Producers also sign certification forms to verify that the procedures were completed. Calves produced through the program are identified with an ear tag carrying the LMA-VACC logo and a management number on the front.

While the new LMA-VACC program marks a major step toward a national preconditioning system that provides rewards for both buyers and sellers, it lacks some important components that may undermine the program's success. For instance, the LMA-VACC program calls for calves to be vaccinated "at least 14 days prior to sale." That's not specific enough, says John McNeill, the Texas A&M animal scientist who has managed the Texas Ranch-to-Rail program for the past nine years.

"There are tremendous differences between the immunity developed by a calf vaccinated at two to four months of age and one vaccinated two to three weeks prior to weaning. Maternal antibody interference and a more immature immune system are a disadvantage for the younger calf."

Dr. McNeill also has concerns about the 30-day post-weaning backgrounding period specified in the third level of the LMA-VACC program. "If there is one thing we learned from 1,700 ranches that have participated in Ranch-to-Rail over the last nine years, it is that calves weaned for at least 45 days are a different commodity than those weaned 30 days. Thirty-day weaning programs are a major reason preconditioning programs failed in the 1970s."

There also is concern about the LMA-VACC program's verification process. Only the seller is required to certify that the calves have met the specific requirements of the LMA-VACC program. Critics believe the program should be strengthened with third-party verification.

The beef industry should commend LMA for its efforts to improve the health and quality of calves that enter the marketing channels. But the current LMA-VACC needs more rigid specifications to be successful. And failure to strengthen the program now can lead to a negative impact on other, successful preconditioning programs.

It's time for a national, standardized preconditioning program. LMA's new program underscores the increasing demand for healthy calves. Other beef industry groups and leaders should step forward to work closely with LMA to develop a standardized preconditioning program that provides benefits for producers, feeders and consumers.