Three months after bird flu wiped out two of Greg Langmo's flocks, he's among the first to start growing turkeys again.
He lost half of a year's normal production and income and won't be able to sell turkeys for months, but the central Minnesota farmer feels good to be getting back to normal.
"It's nerve-racking for sure," Langmo said with a laugh. "You just don't know when things are going to go over the edge. But you've got to go at some point. We can't just sit here."
The U.S. hasn't detected any new cases of H5N2 avian influenza in over a month, so the focus has shifted to recovery and preparations in case wild birds that can carry the disease bring it back this fall, as they migrate south. A USDA update Friday said scientists still haven't nailed down the specific ways the virus spreads from the wild into barns but research is continuing in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin.
The toll was large: more than 48 million chickens and turkeys lost in the U.S. Minnesota, the country's top turkey producing state, lost 9 million turkeys and chickens, and Iowa, the No. 1 egg producer, lost 34 million birds on 77 farms.
Brad Moline just became Iowa's first farmer to be cleared to restock, which he said he'll do late next week.
"This is probably the most excited I've been about restocking turkeys since I got my first flock of turkeys back when I was a kid," Moline said.
Producers' spirits are rising, agreed Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. As of Thursday, 37 of the state's 108 infected farms had been cleared to restock.
"They're coming out of what has been a terrible experience for them and getting back into the business of raising turkeys," Olson said.
Langmo owns five farms. Bird flu struck one April 19, the second June 3. Two others didn't get hit, but were so close to infected farms that he couldn't restock them. One went unscathed.
If all goes well, his first 36,000 restocked birds will become sandwich meat in three or four months. He received clearance this week to restock his second barn with 50,000 birds that will be destined to grace Thanksgiving tables.
But reaching this point has taken an enormous amount of work: composting and disposing of dead birds and thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting his barns. And the government paperwork has been unbelievable, he said.
"It's overwhelming. You look at it and wonder if you'll ever get it done, if it's ever going to be good enough," he said.
To prevent another devastating round of bird flu, producers are taking a hard look at what more they can do to keep anyone or anything from carrying the virus into barns, Olson said. That includes checking screens for holes that could let a bird or rodent in, switching to dedicated equipment for each barn or considering more complex entryways for barns that would separate "dirty" and "clean" areas.
In South Dakota, six of eight affected turkey farms supplying Dakota Provisions have restocked, said Jeff Sveen, the Huron company's chairman. Producers there are building stricter protections, such as venting systems designed to prevent wild bird droppings from entering and wire screens to prevent wild birds from flying through.
As for Langmo and Moline, they haven't made any dramatic biosecurity changes because their precautions were already tight.
Moline, who lost 56,000 turkeys on all three of his farms near the central Iowa community of Manson, said he's been doing small things as he prepares to restock starting next Friday, such as placing bait stations for rodents outside his barns instead of inside and sparrow-proofing the barns.
He expects to be fully restocked by mid-October, with his birds likely ending up on sandwiches at Subway restaurants. And he said he's feeling hopeful despite the threat of the virus returning.
"Will we see it again? Most likely. To this degree? I certainly hope not," he said.