There's Something Special About Cal-Maine

Cal-Maine Foods (NASDAQ: CALM  ) is the largest egg shell provider and distributor in the United States, operating under commonly known brand names such as Land O' Lakes and Egg-Lands Best. While many food companies are struggling to cope with rising costs, Cal-Maine has had a relatively strong year -- up more than 17% since early January. Feed costs remain high, and earlier this summer the company was forced to settle for $28 million in a class action price-fixing lawsuit. But the ongoing explosion in demand for healthier food products has Cal-Maine's specialty egg segment on the up and up, representing a quarter of sales. With just-released earnings that showed profits underneath analyst estimates along with a substantial rise in revenue, investors are left wondering what lies ahead for the company. Here's what you need to know.

Earnings recap
For the first fiscal quarter of 2014, Cal-Maine brought in top-line sales that represented a 17% gain over the prior year. However, the $319.5 million in sales were not able to keep earnings per share in favor with Wall Street. Net income came in at $0.17 per share -- a long $0.13 down from Capital IQ consensus. The revenue number, though, did beat the Street's estimate of $296.73 million by a decent margin.

The sales gains were due to a healthy mix of both higher volume and higher prices -- a luxury in the current food purveyor environment. Specialty eggs (vegetarian fed, organic, cage free, nutrient-enhanced, etc.) continue to be the shining star for the company, representing more than 16% of dozens sold and just under 25% of total egg shells moved.

Feed costs offset sales gains by a degree of $0.034 per dozen (in other words, up 6.7%).

Encouragingly, management has forecasted for lower feed prices throughout fiscal 2014 due to a productive summer corn and soybean crop.

Egg-cellence
Pardon the cheap pun, but Cal-Maine's business appears to be cooking sunny side up. On both a unit level and via acquisitions, the business is growing. Specialty egg sales will continue to drive growth in coming years. These are higher margin goods that help the company hedge long-term increases in input costs.

On a valuation level, the business isn't undervalued, but certainly not pricey. Cal-Maine trades at under 13 times forward earnings. The trailing return on assets is 7.41%. For comparison, dairy company Dean Foods trades at nearly 15 times forward earnings and holds a trailing return on assets of 5.63%. Current assets handily cover total liabilities for the company, which is indicative of a healthy balance sheet.

For a relatively risk-averse play on the continued adoption of healthier food items -- specialty eggs in this case -- take a look at Cal-Maine.


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