Dividend investing is a tried-and-true strategy for generating strong, steady returns in economies both good and bad. But as corporate America's slew of dividend cuts and suspensions over the past few years has demonstrated, it's not enough simply to buy a high yield. You also need to make sure those payouts are sustainable.

Let's examine how ConAgra (NYSE: CAG) stacks up in four critical areas to determine whether it's a dividend dynamo or a disaster in the making.

1. Yield
First and foremost, dividend investors like a large forward yield. But if a yield gets too high, it may reflect investors' doubts about the payout's sustainability. If investors had confidence in the stock, they'd be buying it, driving up the share price and shrinking the yield.

ConAgra yields a moderate 3.8%, quite a bit better than the S&P 500's 2.2%.

2. Payout ratio
The payout ratio might be the most important metric for judging dividend sustainability. It compares the amount of money a company paid out in dividends last year to the earnings it generated. A ratio that's too high -- say, greater than 80% of earnings -- indicates that the company may be stretching to make payouts it can't afford, even when its dividend yield doesn't seem particularly high.

ConAgra has a payout ratio of 50%.

3. Balance sheet
The best dividend payers have the financial fortitude to fund growth and respond to whatever the economy and competitors throw at them. The interest coverage ratio indicates whether a company is having trouble meeting its interest payments -- any ratio less than 5 is a warning sign. Meanwhile, the debt-to-equity ratio is a good measure of a company's total debt burden.

ConAgra has a debt-to-equity ratio of 69% and interest coverage of 6.

4. Growth
A large dividend is nice; a large growing dividend is even better. To support a growing dividend, we also want to see earnings growth.

Let's examine how ConAgra stacks up next to its peers.


5-Year Earnings-per-Share Growth

5-Year Dividends-per-Share Growth

ConAgra 20% 6%
Hershey (NYSE: HSY) 3% 6%
Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT) (1%) 5%
Kellogg (NYSE: K) 6% 8%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

The Foolish bottom line
ConAgra exhibits a clean dividend bill of health. It has a moderately high yield, a reasonable payout ratio, a manageable debt burden, and strong growth. To stay up to speed ConAgra's progress, or that of any other stock, add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a free, personalized watchlist of your favorite stocks.