"You couldn't have done a better job if you had sprayed it with Roundup and 2,4-D," says Gary Freeburg.

That's what Freeburg and his wife, Amy, thought last spring after surveying 1,800 acres of winterkilled alfalfa on their Gayville, SD, farm.

"The old-timers around here said they had never seen anything like it," adds Freeburg.

When he and his father-in-law took a drive to check the alfalfa fields after Easter Sunday dinner late last March, Freeburg was confident the stands had made it through the winter.

"The crowns were just starting to break and green up."

But the following week, the temperature dropped to 10 degrees below zero for five nights.

"The alfalfa roots froze and later turned to mush when they thawed," Freeburg recalls. "The fields hardest hit were those where a late cutting had been taken the previous September and October. Fortunately, we had left some regrowth on about 700 acres, and those fields survived."

The couple planted corn and soybeans on 1,100 of the winterkilled acres. The balance, originally seeded in 1996, was reseeded to alfalfa.

Potato leafhoppers feasted on about half of the new seeding last summer. The remaining acres - along with the 700 acres that weren't winterkilled - yielded a good crop.

Going into '98, their hay supply was down about 12,000 tons from normal. To make up the deficit, they contracted with other hay growers and traveled to Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska to inspect and buy high-quality hay.

"You still have to take care of your customers," explains Freeburg.

The couple sells hay in various bale sizes to dairies in several states, horse and rabbit owners, and zoos. They also grind hay and deliver it to feedlots and dairy farms nationwide.

They usually buy hay from other growers, but never as much as in recent months.

As winter wanes, the impact of last year's winterkill is intensifying.

"It's getting harder and harder to find the high-quality hay we need at the right prices," says Freeburg. "I just got bid way out of the saddle on four big dairy accounts in Minnesota from hay growers in Canada and Montana. If I would have had my own hay out of my own fields, I would have been able to bid those accounts successfully."

The Freeburgs continue to seek new customers via active participation in the National Hay Association and attendance at farm shows such as the World Dairy Expo. They also rely heavily on referrals and are planning an Internet home page.

They're looking forward to establishing 1,500 acres of alfalfa this spring.

Looking back at the tribulations of '97, Freeburg says, "We survived it. Adversity makes you a better businessman.

"Fortunately, we had saved a little for a rainy day and planned ahead. But if we have another year like '97, it'll be a totally different story."