Van Beek Natural Science

Bubbling up in Idaho, a rare form of calcium is changing the way we feed cattle
Written by: 
Christine Fisher
Produced by: 
Sean O’Reilly

Twenty years ago, just six years after Ron Van Beek founded Van Beek Natural Sciences, he saw an experiment that changed his business forever.

While at a dairy show in Blackfoot, Idaho, Van Beek watched a small company pour powdered calcium into a glass of vinegar. Usually calcium added to vinegar bubbles like a just-opened bottle of soda, says Van Beek, but this solution bubbled out of the glass like a volcano. This was a rare form of calcium that came from hot springs in Dubois, Idaho.

Van Beek Natural Science

Van Beek quickly partnered with, and later bought, the company mining that hot water calcium. Ever since, the calcium has been a staple in Van Beek Natural Science products, which include supplements and nutraceuticals for livestock and, increasingly, pets. Its core products include BoviDrops, RumaStart and CalCaps, which promote digestive health in cows, and DiaGel and Syncore, which promote digest health for pets. It also has a line of products for poultry and swine.

Unmined potential

The magic of the calcium additive, which sets Van Beek Natural Science and Van Beek Nutrition apart from competitors who user courser forms of the mineral, comes from its source.

Calcium carbonate is the most common source of calcium in the dairy industry, and most of it is from hard, gray cold-water calcium deposits.

Van Beek believes its hot-water calcium is easier to digest than the typical cold water calcium because it dissolves so quickly, and Van Beek has seen anecdotal results again and again. For instance, when one beef producer fed its 2,500 cattle Van Beek’ calcium product Thermocal, it found its cattle reaching market weight two months earlier than they had before Thermocal.

Now Van Beek is conducting studies with the University of Florida and the University of Arkansas to prove the effectiveness of hot-water calcium.

“Until now we’ve been able to sell our calcium by word of mouth and sharing the great results we see,” says Chief Strategy Officer Alex Van Beek. “In order to take it and make it an industry staple, we need to have better ways to differentiate ourselves.”

“We know it works better,” he says. “I can collect the data on the farm, but until you prove the difference in the university and provide sufficient efficacy data, you miss that validity.”

As it experiments, Van Beek is finding that its calcium is not only useful as a dietary supplement, but for its physical properties. When added to feed pellets it can improve pellet durability and quality. Normally pellets are held with expensive pellet binders, or food-safe glue. Van Beek is starting to replace those binders with its calcium, which not only provides a tremendous nutritional value, but also is less expensive.

“The other unique thing is if we replace cold-water calcium with our soft, hot water deposit calcium, there’s much less wear and tear on the pelleting machines,” Van Beek says.

Pellet machines are very expensive, and pressing cold-water calcium through them is like pushing coarse sand through them. Pressing hot-water calcium through the same machines is like pushing soft powder.

“It’s a big investigative process,” Van Beek says. “A lot of the studies we’re doing right now are looking at calcium for different markets.”

The company sees potential for its calcium in the aqua culture market, chicken and horse feed, and even the paint market.

Organic growth and the “blue market”

Van Beek’s openness to this kind of innovation has helped the company grow organically and is part of the reason it can produce a number of new products each year, despite have just 100 employees.

Its growth is also driven by the personal, consultative approach it uses when engaging with customers.

 “What we find is our customers find huge value in our ability to address individual problems,” Van Beek says. “We’re a company that can be extremely agile, and our creativity with problem solving allows us to address individual situations.  They may seem isolated to a specific customer at first, but when we dig in, we find it’s an industry-wide challenge.”

This approach led Van Beek to one of its top products, DiaGel, which treats diarrhea in dogs and cats in as little as 24 hours. DiaGel’s competitor products take days to work and require more than one dose. The market needed a fast-acting, one-dose option.

“One of the first questions we ask is, ‘does anybody else have a product like this in the market? Is anyone owning this market space?’” Van Beek says. “If the answer to those questions is no, we have what we call a blue market. It’s untapped or fresh, or maybe it’s tapped but other companies are doing it with a very old mindset.”

Optimizing gut health

When Van Beek added its first pet products in 2001, it was partly strategic and partly mission-driven. The market for production animals like cows fluctuates a great deal, but the market for pets is much more stable because market factors have less of an impact on how many pets someone has.

“The companion animal market is about helping a pet to healthy, happy life,” Van Beek says. “There’s gratification in that. Being involved in that market, the products we create help strengthen that innate pet-parent and pet bond.”

Many of the lessons Van Beek learned feeding production animals apply to pets too.

“We’ve always known…  the only way an animal can truly live in overall health is if they have good gut health,” Van Beek says.

That knowledge helped Van Beek develop DiaGel and other digestive health products like Synacore, an enzyme, probiotic, prebiotic and vitamin formula for pets.

“We’ve also learned these things from ourselves,” Van Beek says. “When you yourself are presented with certain challenges and you focus in on good gut health, it’s amazing what happens. If you eat junk you end up with problems that often compound themselves.”

The importance of gut health is a reason Van Beek has always opted for natural products and antibiotic alternatives that are easier on the gut.

“We’ve always pushed the antibiotic free choice,” Van Beek says. “What’s happening now is consumers are demanding that that choice be made available.”

Van Beek appreciates the growing support for natural products but says consumers need to continue pushing.

“If we believe we want natural, healthy, antibiotic-free animals, if we push that way, the market will move in that direction,” Van Beek says. “The American people can move markets.”

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Bearence Management Group
Great Western Bank
Lallemand Specialties Inc.