The evolution of CRYSTALYX®

Dec 12, 2023

CRYSTALYX® is approaching 50 years since its inception. Mark Robbins and Jon Albro each bring over 25 years of experience working with CRYSTALYX® to this discussion, in this episode they reflect on the brand’s rich history and how it’s evolved.



RELATED ARTICLE:  The magic of CRYSTALYX® explained



Tom:                                 I'm Tom Martin, and joining us on this episode of Beyond the Barrel is Mark Robbins. Welcome, Mark. 


Mark:                                Hi, Tom. Glad to be here.


Tom:                                 And we have Jon Albro. Hello, Jon. 


Jon:                                 Hello! How are you?


Tom:                                 Great. And Mark and John are with Crystalyx brand supplements, and they're here to talk about the legacy of Crystalyx and what makes the brand unique. So as we explore the history of Crystalyx supplements, something that's important to mention is the extensive tenure that each of you has working with the Crystalyx brand. So a question for each of you, and I'll begin with you, Mark, and then come to you, John, how long have you worked with Crystalyx and how would you say it's evolved over that time? 


Mark:                                Yeah, Tom, I've been here almost 29 years now. Time flies, I guess, when you're having fun. It's evolved a lot in those last 30 years, and that's kind of what John and I want to talk about on the podcast. When I started, there wasn't a lot of research into how Crystalyx works. And we've added to that greatly, and it's certainly helped our understanding of it. And you know, the number of formulas, we've added a lot, but we're actually in a mode now where we're actually reducing the number of formulas, making it a little easier for customers to pick the right product as opposed to just being overwhelmed with having too many products.


Tom:                                 And John, how long for you and what have you seen change over time? 


Jon:                                 Yeah, I've not been here quite as long as Mark, but I have been here just over 26 years, and it has gone by very fast. It's been a lot of fun. I think probably what I've seen change or evolve in that timeframe is just the application that this product line has brought to the industry, to the feed industry and to the self-fed supplement market really. And we'll probably elaborate a lot more on these topics as we talk here today.


                                           But back when Crystalyx started, it was probably a supplement that was fed between October and March to cows and calves. And that was it. I think our plants probably didn't have a whole lot to do in the summertime back then. And as time went on, these newer applications where we use it as a delivery mechanism for mineral, for fly control, for other additives, for a lot of the things that we've innovated on, that's probably where I've seen it evolve more, where it's just been such a good tool, and we've been the ones that have really pioneered that.


Tom:                                 You know, I'm kind of curious about this, and I guess we will be going way back in the history of Crystalyx here, but let's start with you, John. I ask the same of you, Mark, but what inspired you to get into this field?


John:                                 Well, it's funny you asked that question. When I finished school back in the late '80s, I went on to graduate school in the early '90s, and I was out on the west coast, and my first job out of school was working in research in a lab. And I figured out after just about a year of that, that that wasn't really my cup of tea. I needed to be in the field. I needed to be face-to-face with people. I needed to be working. And I had an opportunity to get into the livestock supplement business. And it was in the block business.


                                           And it was with a different company at the time that— Actually, it's funny how things turn out. We actually own that brand now. It's another brand that we market here at Ridley called Sweet Licks. But that was something I did for four and a half years, and then I had the opportunity to come here. And I guess just working with people and seeing people succeed on behalf of things that we do is really what motivates me.


Tom:                                 Mark, you've been there quite a long time, and I'm curious about your inspiration. What got you into this field?


Mark:                                Overall, getting into this field, I was born and raised on a farm, really kind of wanted to go back to that, but that really didn't work out. I had a brother that was a nutritionist for a feed company, and this kind of seemed like the next best closest thing to be, and actually out on the farm or the ranch of your own is working with farmers and ranchers. And when I got out of school in '94 with my nutrition degree, I had three opportunities. Two of them were with feed companies and with more feedlot nutrition. And then Hubbard Milling had disposition here in Whitewood with the Crystalyx research and nutrition, and the self-fed supplement, the aspect, something new, something different. And it just seemed like it was gonna be a lot more interesting than some of the more traditional roles in the feed industry.


                                          And I was lucky enough to make the right pick there 'cause it certainly has been that. We had good backing for doing more research and promoting the products. It's just been a really fun time. Over the years, we've had a couple of different changes in ownership, but everybody's always supported the blocks because they really are a great opportunity where time, equipment, fuel all get more expensive every year it seems like. And self-fed supplements minimize those, so they become more popular every year.


Tom:                                 Well, Mark, I know that very early in your career, you were asked what makes Crystalyx magical, and where did that question come from? Why were you asked that?


Mark:                                Yeah. It's a good one. I was at the Montana Stock Growers Convention, and a pretty prominent professor from Montana State that was very well known, very well respected, and we were standing at our booth, and he came by and was talking to some of the people there. And, I was kind of introduced as the nutritionist now for Crystalyx. And he says to me, he says, "What is it that you put in Crystalyx that makes it so magical?" And I kind of wondered and looked at him and I said, "Well, what do you mean? Why do you think it's magical?" And he says, "When I look at the cost per pound of protein in Crystalyx, I think it's too expensive."


                                           And I'll just go off track here for a second. That's not uncommon. People need to remember that a self-fed supplement on a cost per pound of protein, it's gonna look more expensive because there's basically little to no delivery cost in that. Whereas something like distiller's grains or cake, and cubes, and such, you still have to deliver those so that cost of protein is lower. So I wasn't surprised to hear that from him, but he went on, he said, "So I tell my customers I think it's too expensive, but they invariably come back to me and say, you know, when I quit using Crystalyx, I have problems with calf scours, retained placenta, my cows don't breed back as well."


                                           And I said, "You know, I understand you may think it costs too much, but you know, it works. And when I quit using it as you suggest, I have problems with my cow herd." He went on to say, "You know, when I look at your ingredients and I look at the ingredients in, say, a typical bag mineral or some cake or cubes, I mean, they're pretty much the same. You've got copper sulfate, zinc sulfate, zinc oxide, vitamins A, D, and E, calcium, phosphorus." He says, "Why is Crystalyx so magical in that it fixes all these problems for my customers or my producers?"


                                           And you know, at the time, I really didn't have an answer for him. But I would say, over time, we've come across two aspects that we bore out with research that were very critical to that. And that is number one, we found that even a small amount of protein that Crystalyx delivers has a very large impact on the digestibility of the forage that a cow consumes. Now, Crystalyx protein products are generally consumed somewhere around three quarters of a pound to a pound per head per day, 20% to 30% protein. By our old standards of maybe feeding two or three pounds of a 30% cotton seed cake, that's not that much protein in Crystalyx.


                                           But research we did at Kansas State University with some digestion trials showed that we increased digestible dry matter, neutral detergent, fiber, organic matter, whatever you wanna look at, by as much as 20%, 25% or 30%. And that all comes down back to the cow as more energy, and more energy gives her better body condition. And we all know how that impacts breed up and conception rate.


                                           The second thing was a little later in the 2000, we did some work with Dr. Derek Bailey where he used GPS collared cows to track these cows around. And we were trying to show how you can manipulate grazing distribution of your herd with where you place your Crystalyx blocks. And we would place those in the upland areas away from riparian areas and found that it very effectively lures those cattle to wherever you place those Crystalyx blocks. And that works especially well when you place 'em in underutilized rangelands, which may be farther from water, up steep slopes. You can get 'em up there to graze that forage. But what we also found, because these were GPS collared cows, we could also track how often they go to the supplement blocks or the Crystalyx barrels and then what percent of the herd goes to those supplement blocks.


                                           And we also track then what percent of the cows went to the mineral if it was a bag mineral or if it was a Crystalyx mineral like Crystal-Phos that we had at that time. And what we found was that more of your herd goes to the Crystalyx barrels, be they protein or mineral, than would go to a conventional dry mineral. And surprisingly, there in a couple of different years on a couple different ranches, we found that only about two-thirds of the cows were actually consuming the mineral where we were in the high 90s for that percentage of cows that were consuming Crystalyx. And so, you put those two things together that a small amount of Crystalyx really can increase the energy intake of a cow.


                                           And the fact that you have much closer to 100% of your cows actually consuming Crystalyx versus maybe two-thirds, three-quarters of the herd is only consuming the mineral. When you think about cows that don't consume the mineral, that they probably have a lower conception rate, their calves may be a little weaker, their colostrum isn't as good, their calves won't be as thrifty. And you move that number of cows that are consuming the mineral from, say, 60%, 70% up to 90%, 95%, 99%, that's gonna look like you really are magical in what you're putting out there with Crystalyx just from the fact that you're getting more animals to actually consume the supplement. 


Tom:                                 So it really does pencil out bang for buck.


Mark:                                Very much so. Like I mentioned earlier, the professor that asked that question, he started it by saying I think it costs too much on a pound of protein basis. You need to remember that it is a self-fed supplement. It delivers itself every day. Properly set, a group of Crystalyx barrels will last a couple of weeks, on a protein supplement can last up to three weeks on a mineral supplement. So you're not out there every day delivering that. It's a huge savings in labor and time on your ranch because of that.


Jon:                                 Yeah. Mark, I wanna say something in addition to it a little bit. I mean, you just talked about 15 or 20 years' worth of research there. That says a lot. And it reminds me of a— I think it was a testimonial we did with a gentleman in South Dakota, a rancher from South Dakota that said, "If you look at Crystalyx just based on the tag or on the label, that's not the story." That doesn't tell you anything. It just tells you what the guaranteed analysis is and what the ingredients are.


                                           I think a lot of us in the feed sales world and in the nutrition world have heard the same form defines function, and a kernel of corn is not gonna be digested and utilized the same way as if it's fed to an animal in the whole form versus if it's been processed, cracked, flaked, whatever. And that's the same thing with Crystalyx. We've done some stuff there with the unique manufacturing process that makes it palatable, that makes consistent intake, all these things Mark's talking about, that makes it perform way better than what a label can tell you.


Tom:                                 Well, I have you, John. What are the origins of the stress and mineral blocks that Crystalyx pioneered? 


Jon:                                 Yeah. Mark had talked about a lot of the research we did with protein-type supplements and some other ones too. I remember the stress product concept or a stress barrel, if you wanna call it that, it's a product that we have called Brigade. We used to have a product called Beef-lyx, but I remember my first experience with Brigade was actually when I was competing against Crystalyx. I was out on the West Coast. I mean, I'm a Nebraska farm boy by birth and now live back in the state. But I spent a good number of years on the West Coast early in my career, and I remember seeing Brigade sold in these little pails that was used for dairy calves. So it was kind of a dairy calf concept at that time. The idea was to put it in with the dairy calves in these huts and let 'em lick on it, helps 'em alleviate some stress, helps promote some feed intake.


                                           And I think that concept was already out there with a product called Beef-lyx with starting calves, but it really wasn't until very late '90s where we actually had a salesperson in the eastern part of the US work with a large backgrounder, and they started using brigade in some receiving trials. And it was amazing what we saw. We saw calves eat a half a pound of feed more per head per day or almost a pound in some cases and got 'em to gain another half a pound per head per day, reduced sickness, reduced health problems and just overall cost. And so, that's really where it started. We published some papers in some popular press with some of that data, and all of a sudden our brigade sales took off.


                                           People within our company caught fire on it, and all of a sudden the competition did too to where today everybody else has a me too product. They call it a stress barrel a stress tub for lack of a better word. We like to refer to Crystalyx as barrels and blocks instead of tubs because everybody else just sells tubs. But I really think that that was what set that concept in motion. And really, the same can be said for the mineral product or the mineral barrel concept. I mean, Mark talked about that consistent intake, how it's more potable, how we get a higher percentage of animals to consume Crystalyx versus a dry mineral or versus a lot of other supplement forms. And that's pretty doggone important.


                                           If you're gonna go out and supplement mineral and spend a lot of money on mineral, wouldn't you want 97% of your herd consuming it versus one-half or two-thirds? And that's what we've shown there. And that whole concept was really driven with the idea, okay, here we've got a product that gets consumed consistently, how can we make a mineral better? Can we make a mineral formula out of this? Mark and I were on a trip across Eastern South Dakota. I think I'd been working for Ridley for about two weeks.


                                           I can almost remember, Mark, we were probably between Mitchell and Sioux Falls when we talked about this. And we thought about making a concentrated type mineral formula out of Crystalyx and that's where Crystal-Phos was born. That product, we did some trials and it worked well. That was the product used in Montana with some of those other research trials Mark alluded to. And from there, now it's evolved into our Blueprint 6% Phos product that we sell an awful lot of now. Again, I've said this earlier, we've been the ones that have pioneered all this stuff.


Tom:                                 I think it's interesting that you all talk about this stuff while you're out on the road in between places.


Jon:                                 The best ideas I've ever come up with weren't mine. I've stole 'em all from other people and a lot of 'em from ranchers. 


Tom:                                 So, John, while I have you, you mentioned in your blog that the Crystalyx brand places a big emphasis on marketing and advertising efforts designed to support producers and customers. Can you tell us about the new Crystalyx Gold Rewards Loyalty program? What's that? 


Jon:                                 Yeah, I will. I'll get to Gold Rewards. I'm really proud of all the marketing we do. I mean, some people might wanna say, well, gee whiz, Company A or B sure spends a lot of money on advertising, but I don't think we apologize for it. It's a good way to show support to our customers that sell it and have confidence in recommending it to producers. And it's a good way to show producers that we stand behind it as well.


                                           The Gold Rewards is something that I really like, and it's brand new. There isn't another program like it in the feed supplement business. There might be on pet food and those kind of things. But when it comes to lick barrels, lick tubs, whatever you wanna call 'em, there's nothing like it. And Gold Rewards really is a frequent buyer reward program that will reward a customer for their loyalty. So for every purchase they make with Crystalyx, they can sign up for the program, they can upload a receipt, and we can approve of that receipt, and they can earn points towards wearables, towards gift cards, all kinds of different things.


                                           It's really our way of saying thanks back to the producer. Call it a handshake. Call it a thank you. And it's really nice. And I think dealers are gonna like this program as well because it helps bring those customers back into their business and allows them to keep servicing those customers with Crystalyx. So I really like the program And like I said, it's our way of saying thanks. 


Tom:                                 Well, a question for each of you. How has the competitive landscape changed for Crystalyx since its inception, and what sets Crystalyx apart from its competitors?


Mark:                                Tom, that is the change for Crystalyx. Yeah. When I started almost 30 years ago, there were maybe two or three other companies making low moisture blocks. Today, there's over a dozen. So other people have watched and learned how well Crystalyx works on the ranch for our customers and have decided, "Hey, I'm gonna build a facility as well." So that's how the competitive landscape has changed for Crystalyx. There are a lot more competitors out there.


                                           And I think Jon got to this in his blog a lot, and I'll give him a chance to talk on that here. But the difference is that Crystalyx has led the way with the new product ideas and the new applications, whether that's something like the bio barrel, it's a biodegradable tub, whether it's Iono-lyx, our tub that has an ionophore in it. We're still the only company that's developed and successfully got an FDA approved free choice, low moisture block with an ionophore in it.


                                           The brigade work was another good example of pioneering how that block works for stressed calves. And now, you see every competitor that we have has a block that works with stressed calves. So Jon, how would you answer that question? I give you a chance.


Jon:                                 Well, I would say that— And I've said it a couple times in this blog, and we even talked about the evolution early on. I would say that we've done it all. We've started it all. Our competition should be thanking us for all these ideas that they've just copycatted. I mean, not to sound disrespectful, but we've been the ones and the only ones that have had a novel thought in developing a new application. And I don't apologize for it, and I don't think anybody else that works for us does either. You'd mentioned the bio barrel. There wouldn't have been a bio barrel without our ideas, and our work, and our commitment, and the dollars that it took to research that and get it done. The same way with Iono-lyx, the number of years of research and working with the FDA. We've done all that.


                                           That's what I've seen how the competition has changed. And what really sets us apart from the competition is that we want our people to be confident in selling Crystalyx, and we want our customers to be reassured that they're buying the right thing and that they're buying the right product for the right application. Not just a price in a tub, not a me too product. And as a salesperson, it can be really frustrating to see a lot of people just copycat you, but at the same time, you know, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Everybody likes a winner. That's why if you've got a winning sports team that you're a fan of, you're probably gonna wear their ball cap, wear their T-shirt, that kind of stuff. Everybody likes a winner.


Tom:                                 Well, keeping that competitive situation in mind, we don't want to give away too much here, but John, how does Crystalyx continue to innovate and to pioneer within this self-fed supplement space? 


Jon:                                 Well, good question. And I think listen to this podcast. I think we've been talking about it the whole way, and we're gonna continue to do that. We're gonna continue to do research. We're gonna continue to lead with marketing. I've managed salespeople, and I work with a lot of customers, and we're gonna make sure that they understand how to position this. I don't think there's any other brand out there that the people selling it are better educated on with how to position low moisture blocks, these types of supplements. And so, we take a lot of pride in that, and that's one way we're gonna keep innovating, is keep doing that. And if you surround yourself with good people that are motivated, you're gonna come up with new ideas. And that's what we've done.


Mark:                                Yeah, Jon. You know, some things that we have done over the years, like we mentioned with the bio barrel, not only have we introduced the bio barrel, but we've upgraded it a couple of different times with some newer technologies. A couple of those even have new patents on 'em, so there's more innovation in the containers. The product itself, the intake of Crystalyx really hasn't changed. And I don't think it needs to. Three-quarters of a pound for a protein product, quarter pound on our minerals. And that works very well.


                                           We did introduce a product that had a slightly higher intake, and it wasn't really all that successful. So I don't know that we need to change the intake of the product. What we do is the nutrition that it provides. And certainly, a lot of that kind of comes down to some of the additives that we have. We've got a very wide array of fly control options, magnesium options. These are things that others can try to copy all that, but we were actually some of the first to offer those products over 20 years ago.


                                           And Crystalyx, when it comes to delivering an additive, there's really no better way to deliver that to grazing animals than a self-fed supplement that has the accuracy and consistency of intake that Crystalyx has. It makes it very predictable and precise when you need to get a certain number of grams per head per day of an additive in an animal. And it does it every day. You don't have to start up a tractor or a truck to get it done. Things along those lines are where the future innovations will continue to come from with Crystalyx. 


Tom:                                 Well, we've covered a lot of ground here, but producers who've been listening may wanna know even more. Where can they go to learn more about Crystalyx?


Mark:                                Sure, Tom. There's, yeah, or You can find us there. You can also download our Crystalyx supplementation app. Once you get to that website, there's an iPhone version and a droid version as well.


                                           And it has all the products in it. It's got some information there on the additives that are available in Crystalyx and which products they're in. There's three calculators in there that you can use to figure out cost per head per day, and how much supplement your cattle are consuming, how much supplement you'd need for, say, a three or a four-month grazing period with your cattle. Just a lot of good tools in that app, and I'd encourage everyone to download that once you get to the Crystalyx site. 


Jon:                                 I'd also add to like and share us on social media and share these podcasts, share our blogs. It's a good way to get the message out for people to learn and just wanna promote our efforts there too. And thanks to everybody that listens and subscribes.


Tom:                                 All right, that's Mark Robbins and Jon Albro with Crystalyx Brand supplements. Good to talk to both of you today. 


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