* EPS C$0.14 vs analysts’ forecast C$0.08
* Australian results, fertilizer sales lift earnings
* Shares hit 14-month high
* W. Canada farmers seen planting less in 2011 (Recasts, adds comments from conference call)
By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Quarterly earnings at Canadian grain handler Viterra Inc VT.TO VTA.AX surpassed expectations on Wednesday, extending the gains its shares have made already this year on soaring crop prices.
Fears of food inflation have helped lift Viterra shares 19 percent so far in 2011, and they closed on Wednesday 54 Canadian cents, or 5.2 percent, higher at C$11.07 in Toronto, touching a 14-month high.
In a conference call with analysts, Chief Executive Mayo Schmidt said it’s unlikely, however, that crop and fertilizer prices will reach the peaks of 2008 again this year.
“As an industry, we need to be quite thoughtful and careful about the demand destruction that happens if prices go too high and volatility gets too great,” Schmidt said. “I think the (price) trend we’re on is stable.”
Grain and oilseed prices climbed rapidly in the second half of 2010 as drought in Russia and flooding in Western Canada and Australia raised supply concerns, especially about high-quality milling wheat.
But South Australia, where Viterra’s Australian grain-handling operations are based, is harvesting what are likely the biggest crops on record despite severe flooding in other regions of the country, Schmidt said.
Saturated soil in Western Canada before winter, followed by heavy snowfall, have raised the chances of severe spring flooding again. But Viterra estimates farmers will manage to seed more land than last year and only 5 percent or 3 million acres less than normal.
Viterra sees Canadian farmers planting more canola — between 18 million and 19 million acres this year — taking some area away from wheat, durum and barley.
For its fourth quarter, ended Oct. 31, Viterra earned C$52.7 million ($52.7 million), or 14 Canadian cents per share, compared with a net loss of C$920,000, or nil per share, a year earlier. Viterra attributed the year-before quarter’s loss to weak fertilizer margins and declining commodity prices.
The company said revenue rose 38 percent to C$2 billion.
Analysts, on average, had expected Viterra to report earnings per share of 8 Canadian cents on revenue of C$1.97 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Earnings rose as they fully reflected the acquisition of Australia’s ABB Grain in 2009, along with strong fertilizer sales and contributions from newly acquired pasta and oat processors, the company said.
“Most people were expecting them to have a good quarter, but this is definitely better,” said Jason Zandberg, an analyst who follows the company for PI Financial Corp. “Definitely a great quarter.”
Viterra’s fourth-quarter performance pushed its yearly net profit up 28 percent to C$145 million, the second-biggest annual profit for the company formerly known as Saskatchewan Wheat Pool since it went public in 1996.
$1=$1.00 Canadian Reporting by Rod Nickel; editing by Rob Wilson and Peter Galloway