James V. Strickland isn't in the same league as Hertz, Avis or National, but -- as it says in those slick magazine ads -- he's "trying harder" to get ahead in the nation's fiercely competitive rental business.

Every year, Strickland rents 5,000 sleek, high-performance beauties to hundreds of customers in five midwestern states with nary a complaint about so much as a cluttered ashtray. His operation totals a brisk $5 million a year.

There's something you should know, though: Strickland's rapidly expanding new leasing fleet doesn't boast any factory-fresh Ford Fairmonts -- or even an economical new Toyota station wagon.

Rather, Strickland rents cows -- big cows, little cows, Holsteins and Guernseys -- to dairy farmers here under a broader agricultural leasing operation run by BancOhio, the Columbus-based financial holding company.

It's all part of the burgeoning rent-a-cow business -- one of the nation's fastest-growing and most lucrative industries.

David Halsey, editor of Dairy Herd Management magazine, reports that the industry has exploded from a few mom-and-pop rental firms a few years ago to a half-dozen major operators, incuding BancOhio and the giant Borg-Warner Corp.

Although no formal figures are available, estimates show the six may be leasing as many as 35,000 cows -- suggesting annual revenues of $30.5 million. And from all indications, they seem to be milking the market for all it's worth.

By most standards, the business is a newcomer. A decade ago, leasing dairy cows was virtually unheard of. What changed it all was the impact of inflation, which forced farmers into larger operations with far-higher equipment costs.

Why should a dairy farmer rent a cow? Well, for one thing, to avoid the huge capital outlay required to buy the animals in any volume, notes Richard Edwards, a dairy specialists at Texas A&M.

Or a farmer may want to expand his operation rapidly to accommodate a change in market demands. Renting enables even a cash-poor farmer to build up his herd quickly with a minimum of risk to his overall cash flow.

Sidney, Ohio, dairyman Robert L. Brautigam is typical of many of today's rent-a-cow customers. The 44-year-old farmer wanted to get his son-in-law into the family business last summer, but didn't have the money to buy extra cattle.

Worse yet, Brautigam faced the decision just weeks after an electrical fire had destroyed his barn and milking machines. To finance both new facilities and new cattle might have been feasible technically, he says, "but we wouldn't have had anything left."

In Brautigam's case, retaining his cash flow was the major factor. To buy the needed 58 cows at, say, $1,800 a head would have required a down payment of $20,880. And he already had borrowed $136,000 to re-build his burned-down barn.

Instead, Strickland fixed him up with 58 rented animals for an "advance payment" of $11,582.39 -- or $9,297.61 less than a loan down payment would have been -- plus a rental fee of $3,656.54 a month, or from $55.25 to $90 a head.

The rental fee is based primarily on the prevailing interest rate, with a three-year lease required. Analysts say when all is said and done, renting costs about 1 percent more than buying -- but the farmer's cash flow is better. c

To Brautigam, the beauty is that in contrast to the typical car rental, renting a cow is self-financing: The fees come directly out of the payments the farmer receives for the milk it produces.

The analogy to renting cars disappears after you've described the basic transaction. Unlike auto rentals, the leasing fee doesn't cover breakdowns, there's no charge for mileage and Strickland doesn't wear a green blazer.

Instead, the rental company's role is strictly that of financier: to provide the initial outlay and then to collect the payments. BlancOhio doesn't have any auction barns of its own. The farmer picks the cows he wants himself.

After that, however, the dairyman pays for everything -- food, veterinary bills, insurance, even the delivery charges. If a cow dies, the farmer must buy a replacement -- no matter what the cause of the animal's death.

Industry leaders concede that renting isn't for everybody. "Obviously, if you had the money to go out and buy a cow, it wouldn't pay you to rent," says John P. Newton, regional manager for Borg-Warner's cow-leasing division.

The big stickler in modern-day rent-a-cow deals is over who owns whatever calves the rented cattle may bear. Under BancOhio's arrangement, Brautigam gets to keep the offspring. Some other leasing firms make the farmer give them up.

This question is important. In Brautigam's case, his deal with BancOhio will enable him to use or sell the calves to expand his own herd. "In a couple-three years the whole thing will have paid for itself," he says.

The dairyman also gets some tax breaks he wouldn't have reaped if he'd bought, rather than rented, his cows: The entire payment -- not just the interest portion -- is deductible under a rental arrangement. There's also depreciation.

And in BancOhio's case, the company passes the 10 percent investment tax credit that the cattle purchase provides for directly onto the farmer -- an added benefit in cases where a dairyman needs a tax writeoff as well.

When the rental period is up, the farmer may return the cows to BancOhio or buy them at 15 percent below purchase price. (Most choose to buy the cattle they've been leasing. Strickland says few of his cows have ever come home.)

Once the contract's signed, the business seems to run itself. Renters agree to assign part of their bimonthly payments from producers to cover the leasing fee. Most leasing companies don't get involved in maintaining their own herds.

But underwriters stress that the rent-a-cow business isn't all milk and honey. You don't just ask for a drivers' license and major credit card, leasing company officials assert.

Borg-Warner's Newton says the secret of success comes before the contract is signed in a detailed financial check of the farmer to make sure he will be financially able to pay for the cows he's renting.

Neither Borg-Warner nor BancOhio will rent to "start-up" farmers who aren't already in the business and in solid financial shape, to boot. And both firms limit the number of cows they'll rent to a percentage of the existing herd.

"It's a credit judgment on our part," Strickland explains. "What we want to know is, does the farmer have the cash flow to service the debt? We don't like to deal with marginal farmers."

And experts warn that farmers, too, must check carefully before accepting any animal. Halsey reports at least one instance in which rental cattle later were found to have brucellosis disease, which then spread throughout the herd.

BancOhio got into cow-renting in mid-1978 as an extension of its other farm leasing operations. The notion of cow-leasing still was a novelty. "Everybody said a farmer wouldn't lease, but we proved 'em wrong," Strickland says.

Meanwhile, both firms remain convinced that the rent-a-cow business is here to stay and likely to continue growing as dairy farm operations become more costly and interest rates remain relatively high.

"I think it's the coming thing," Strickland says, with an air of some confidence. And he won't need O.J. Simpson to bolt over the barnyard fence. "It sells itself," Strickland says. "conditions are right for growth."