The newest 460 residents of Broadwater County are doing their part to help the local economy -- they're eating locally grown food, and the raw material they produce is shipped only as far as Bozeman before being returned to places like Costco in Helena as finished products.

They don't say much, but they're efficient, each work two shifts a day, seven days a week, and county officials hope they'll be around for a while.

Looking for a way to expand his business, lifelong Gallatin County resident Jerry Leep last fall moved his 263 dairy cows from the Manhattan area to a new farm 9 miles south of Toston in southern Broadwater County. He's already expanded his herd to 460 and plans to have close to 600 milking cows by sometime this fall.

Leep, 61, said there was a lot to recommend Broadwater County as he began considering a move several years ago.

The dry climate is good for the animals, his wells are delivering plenty of water, and he's got a good working relationship with neighbors Kimm Brothers Farming, getting a large portion of his forage from the Kimms and providing the growers with fertilizer.

The move to a new, modern facility also gives Leep more efficiency and allows him to have more animals. His Gallatin farm could accommodate just 250 head, while the new one is surveyed and engineered to expand to up to 1,200.

";And volume makes a difference, that's all there is to it: volume and efficiency," he said. ";The way this place is set up it takes less people to run it."

Indeed, the farm isn't a huge creator of (human) jobs. Along with Leep and two of his three sons, three other employees are all that are needed to run the business.

But Broadwater County officials are thrilled to have the farm move in, citing benefits beyond job creation.

";It's diversity. Any time you have a downturn in the economy, you want diversity," said County Commissioner Laura Obert. ";It's agriculture, but it's a different kind of agriculture than we've had."

Brian Obert of the Gateway Economic Development District said the dairy farm contributes more per acre to the county's tax base than traditional ag land. Plus, he said, with the milk being shipped only as far as the Country Classic Dairy cooperative in Bozeman for processing before returning to several retail outlets throughout western Montana, much of the product stays local.

";When you bring this kind of operation in, you know it's going to be here a long time," he said.

As with many new facilities, the farm represents a massive capital investment that will need to be paid off over many years.

Even the cows themselves are a large up-front cost: Leep said it costs around $1,200 to raise a cow before she reaches the age of 2 and starts producing milk.

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";We feel it was a good move, but it does require a reasonably good price for milk to make it profitable, and what we're getting right now isn't a reasonable price," Leep said. ";We've been through these cycles for 30 years. That's part of the game in agriculture -- some years are better than other years."

Leep said a cow can produce milk for 310 days or so before being dry for 50 to 60 days. While Leep said the average dairy cow in the U.S. goes through around three lactation cycles, he hopes to coax six or more cycles from his cows.

";We tried to design this facility with open lots so the cows can stay off the concrete," Leep said. ";Cow comfort makes a tremendous difference. We don't want to push our cows too hard. You can abuse a cow by pushing her. If you're good to your cattle, they're going to be good to you."

To that end, while some farmers get 80 or 90 pounds of milk from a cow each day, Leep settles for around 72 pounds per animal, figuring he can make up in longevity what he's missing in daily output.

Leep, who said there's usually 2 percent milk in his own fridge -- ";and we drink a lot of it" -- said that while he's no longer up for the 3:30 a.m. milking (each of the twice-daily milkings takes about four hours for the entire herd), he doesn't see a day he'll retire from the dairy business.

";It's a lot of work, but we like the lifestyle," he said. ";It's a great place to raise kids and teach them how to work, and knowing how to work hard is important nowadays."

John Harrington: 447-4080 or john.harrington@

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