GREELEY - Pilgrim's Pride is back in the black, reporting first-quarter earnings of $39.6 million on net sales of nearly $1.9 billion

The profit amounted to 18 cents per diluted share vs. a loss of $119.9 million, or 54 cents per share, in the same quarter last year, the company said Friday.

Pilgrim's, headquartered in Greeley, posted similar sales of about $1.9 billion during the same quarter last year.

"We are encouraged to see the benefits of our strategy and the improvement in our operations over the past year reflected in the best results we have had in the first calendar quarter since 2005," CEO Bill Lovette said in an earnings statement.

Pilgrim's also posted cash flow of $29.4 million for the first quarter.

The company's profitable first quarter follows a difficult 2011 fiscal year where the company posted losses of $497 million. The company blamed higher costs and volatility in grain prices.

Pilgrim's, as well as the industry, must continue a shift toward valuing the whole bird and not relying on high breast-meat prices to carry margins, the company said in its earnings statement.

Volatility in the commodity markets is now the norm and must be considered, along with cost containment, as a standard part of production planning, the company added.

"We've accomplished a lot over the past year and are clearly headed in the direction we want to be," Lovette said. "This quarter confirms our belief: The industry can be profitable even at varying grain price points given the right focus on discipline."

Pilgrim's employs about 38,500 people and operates chicken-processing plants and prepared-foods facilities in 12 states, Puerto Rico and Mexico.