Hormel Foods Corp. on Thursday posted a strong first quarter, anchored by a star performance from its Jennie-O turkey division.

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel's profits were up 21 percent over a year ago, beating Wall Street estimates.

During the quarter, Jennie-O experienced the "perfect storm of positives," said Brian Yarbrough, a stock analyst at Edward Jones.

Its main input cost — turkey feed — has been low. Consumer demand is burgeoning for branded Jennie-O products like ground turkey. And commodity turkey — dark meat not used in branded products — has been fetching high prices in export markets.

"Jennie-O turkey margins are just off the charts," Yarbrough said. And while commodity turkey prices are expected to weaken, low turkey feed costs and consumer demand are not.

Hormel reported net profits for its first quarter ended Jan. 25 of $171.1 million, or 64 cents per share, compared with $153.3 million, or 57 cents a share, a year ago. Adjusted for one-time charges, Hormel's earnings were $187.3 million, or 69 cents per share.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were on average expecting 64 cents per share for adjusted earnings.

Hormel's first-quarter sales tallied $2.4 billion, a tad below the $2.5 billion expected by analysts, but 7 percent higher than a year ago.

"We are off to an excellent start to our fiscal year," Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger told stock analysts in a conference call.

Because of the company's strong first-quarter performance, Ettinger said, Hormel upped its profit guidance for the year from $2.45 to $2.55 per share to $2.50 to $2.60 per share.

Hormel's stock closed Thursday at $57.65, up $1.51 or 2.7 percent.

The Jennie-O division posted a 56 percent increase in operating profits during the first quarter and a 10 percent rise in sales. "Jennie-O delivered impressive growth, exceeding our expectations," Ettinger said in the conference call.

The brand is gaining more consumer awareness as Hormel trots out more turkey products and ups its advertising. "Consumers who have found the Jennie-O turkey brand are enjoying it and trying it more often," Ettinger said.

Also, high-protein diets are particularly popular now, and turkey is often seen as a more healthy meat option. "The trend toward health and wellness is a tail wind for Jennie-O," Ettinger said.

Jennie-O made up 35 percent of Hormel's operating profits during the quarter, while the refrigerated foods division — home to bacon, pepperoni and other meats — composed 38 percent. Refrigerated foods had a solid quarter, recording a 19 percent increase in operating profits on sales growth of 1 percent.

But Hormel's grocery products segment, which includes Spam and Hormel chili, experienced an 8 percent decline in operating profits; its sales were up 2 percent.

And Hormel's overall profits during the quarter were goosed a bit by asset sales and tax refunds that lowered its corporate expenses, Yarbrough, the analyst, said.

Still, Hormel is producing some of the best financial results in the packaged food industry, which has had stagnant sales in recent quarters.

"All of our food companies are struggling right now unless they have protein and natural and organics," Yarbrough said. And Hormel has a lot of protein products.