The Chickens Ate My Profits!

Despite its tasty chicken products, I've never found myself a fan of Tyson Foods' (NYSE: TSN  ) stock. This quarter's results illustrate my reasoning: The company's top line remained flat over last year, but operating profit, excluding one-time charges, was less than half of a year ago.

Overall, the company made money in its pork business and lost money in its cattle and flagship chicken operations. With ethanol hogging up much of the corn supply (a major ingredient used to make the feed), the cost of plumping up those chickens has been skyrocketing. Accordingly, management attributed much of its poor performance in chicken because of this, leaving Tyson's CEO Richard Bond to once again slam the U.S. ethanol policy, calling for an end to subsidies.

This pits him against ethanol producers such as Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM  ) , which just reported earnings that included a nice boost from ethanol. Though companies always take stances on issues that serve their self interest, ADM's position on the effect of ethanol has always seemed dubious. "Heck, we'll just plant more corn and Monsanto's (NYSE: MON  ) magic seeds will create everything we need." Though this is not an actual quote from ADM management, it might as well be.

This is part of the reason I've never been bullish on the company. Tyson has little control over the prices it shells out for its main inputs, and little to no control over the prices it gets for its meat. Because of this, the company has experienced erratic results over the past few years, which have only gotten worse lately.

Touching upon this issue in the conference call, Bond noted that the company's expenditures on feed have doubled since 2006. He also said that these costs are just being passed on to customers, so consumers will probably find the cost of meat rising rapidly over the next few months.

Shoppers picking up a rotisserie in their local Kroger (NYSE: KR  ) or SUPERVALU (NYSE: SVU  ) aren't the only ones having to shell out more cash for their meat. Tyson also mentioned that weakness in casual and mid-scale dining had caused them to be inundated with "requests to reformulate existing products or develop new ones to drive more value." Which means you might want to be a little more careful the next time you eat out. I'm not quite sure how meat products are reformulated to drive more value (and I don't want to know), but I might inspect my chicken sandwich a little closer this afternoon.

In the end, if you're willing to put in a lot of time and effort and follow trends in the market for animal feed and various meat, then there is money to be made in Tyson. The shares are highly cyclical, and some traders have become expert at picking the highs and lows in the meat processing industry. This strategy is very risky, however, and considering the expertise and diligence needed to carry it out, meat processors are not very appetizing for most long-term investors.

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