Quarterly earnings at Cargill Inc. fell 41 percent from a year ago, as profits came under pressure in its energy trading business and its vast grain operations.

Still, the Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant noted that this year's quarter faced a tough comparison after a record quarter in 2012. "We actually feel it was a very good quarter," said Lisa Clemens, a Cargill spokeswoman.

Cargill, one of the world's largest private companies, posted net profits of $571 million, down from $975 million in the year-ago period. Sales were $33.8 billion for the July-to-September quarter, the first of its fiscal year, in line with a year ago.

CEO Greg Page said in a statement that Cargill's performance was "balanced," with three-quarters of its myriad business units recording profits. Cargill produces everything from road salt to chocolate to chicken.

Cargill's "origination and processing" segment, which includes its grain trading, handling and processing operations, was the largest contributor to the company's first-quarter results, though it fell short of last year's performance. Lower grain prices this summer contributed to the decline, as did tight grain stocks, Clemens said.

Earnings fell "moderately" compared with a year ago in Cargill's second-largest segment, food ingredients, which includes its cocoa and corn sweetener businesses.

In Cargill's industrial and financial services segment, results were down significantly from last year's strong first quarter. The energy trading business posted a notably weak performance due to the combination of mild weather, soft demand and market volatility.

Cargill's global animal nutrition and protein business, which includes both its global feed and meat processing operations, fared best during the quarter — at least relative to a year ago. Its earnings rose slightly.

The company's U.S. beef processing operations benefited from increased slaughter plant efficiencies, the result of idling its plant in Plainview, Texas. The decrease in production capacity helped boost profit margins.