Minnesota's poultry industry is creeping back from the devastating bird flu epidemic that killed 9 million birds.

The Minnesota county hardest hit by the bird flu, Kandiyohi, has been released from quarantine by state animal health regulators.

Meanwhile, 37 flu-stricken farms have been restocked with healthy birds or are in the process of restocking, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health said Thursday.

By lifting quarantine, poultry producers and backyard flock owners of noninfected barns are no longer restricted in moving birds or eggs on or off their farms. Quarantine has now been lifted in 18 of the 23 Minnesota counties hit by lethal bird flu.

Bird restocking on a farm-by-farm basis can begin before a countywide quarantine has been lifted. Restocking began in mid-June and has steadily grown. About 35 percent of stricken farms have brought in new birds.

"It's encouraging to have farms that have already restocked," said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. "There is a sense that growers are happy to be back in business."

The H5N2 bird flu touched down in Minnesota in late March, hitting 108 poultry farms before the last case was reported June 5. Losses in Minnesota were exceeded nationally only by those in Iowa, where about 31 million birds — mostly egg-laying hens — were killed.

The flu shuts down a turkey farm for about three months, Olson said. It takes a month just to compost dead birds in the barns. Once they're removed, the barns must be intensively cleaned and sit idle for a few weeks before turkey growers get clearance from federal regulators to restock.

Minnesota is the nation's largest turkey producer, and about 10 percent of its annual production was lost to the flu. In Kandiyohi County, the state's leading turkey producing county, 40 farms were stricken.

Stearns County, the state's second-biggest turkey county, leads the restocking effort with eight barns repopulated. Kandiyohi is next with seven, then Meeker with six. The three central Minnesota counties are adjacent.

Animal health experts expected warm weather to kill the bird virus, and that seems to be the case. But they fear the flu could return in the fall as ducks and other waterfowl migrate back south.

Highly pathogenic avian flu is believed to be carried by waterfowl, though they are not themselves sickened by the virus.

While turkey growers are concerned about the flu returning, letting their barns sit empty — and producing no revenue — is a greater risk, Olson said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003