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Cal-Maine axes dividend, as egg market slump hits hard

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Shares in Cal-Maine tumbled, as the largest US egg producer reported a larger-than-expected loss.

The Mississippi-based company was hit by slumping egg prices, as demand remains subdued, and production booms, in the wake of last year's avian flu epidemic.

Company sales over the three months to August were reported at $239.8m, down 61% from the same period last year.

Dividend dropped

Cal-Maine reported a net loss of $30.9m, or 64 cents a share, over the three months to August, compared to net income of $143.0m over the same time a year ago.

Analysts were expecting a loss of around 33 cents per share.

The loss means that Cal-Maine, which usually pays out one-third of its earnings in dividends, will make not pay-out this year.

Falling egg prices

The first-quarter loss reflects "a disappointing shell egg market with more challenging market conditions and significantly lower market prices," said chief executive Dolph Baker.

"Average customer selling prices dropped 58% from the record high levels we experienced a year ago."

According the USDA's Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook, released this month, egg prices in New York were seen at just 71-72 cents a pound in the July to August period, down from 235.70 cents over the same period last year.

Food processors still shun eggs

The fall in egg prices has been ascribed to the fact that food processors reformulated their products during last year's price spike, reducing their demand.

Although prices have fallen as production booms, these industrial food processors have not increased demand.

"Retail demand remained favourable; however, lower institutional demand for egg products and reduced egg exports pushed inventory levels higher and created additional pricing pressures," Cal-Maine said.

Shares tumble

But Cal-Maine was upbeat on longer-term prospects, and teased further expansion.

"We will focus on managing our operations efficiently and identifying additional growth opportunities, including acquisitions that will enhance our ability to serve our customers and extend our market reach," Mr Baker said.

Cal-Maine is in the process of acquiring the egg-business assets of Foodonics, comprising 1.6m hens, and capacity for an additional 1.5m hens.

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of November.

Cal Maine shares slumped nearly 10% in pre-market trading, although they trimmed gains in session, trading down 1.7%, at $41.44 a share in morning deals.

By William Clarke

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