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Jan 8 (Reuters) - Monsanto Co, the world's largest seed company, reported better-than-expected first-quarter earnings on Wednesday as higher herbicide sales offset a decline in its corn business.
Analysts lauded the company's performance, saying it had a good balance of the high-margin herbicide business and advancements in its seed business.
"The ag productivity segment carried the day this quarter in terms of where most of the earnings growth came from," said Edward Jones analyst Matt Arnold. "But the seed business did fine. We definitely applaud them. They are intelligently focusing on where they can win."
In early trading, shares climbed 2.2 percent to $115.30.
Monsanto, which develops genetically engineered corn, soybeans and other crops and sells the popular Roundup herbicide, said it was seeing strong early seed orders for spring planting in the United States.
"The first quarter demonstrated that our business performance is squarely on track with several key milestones and that we have the right growth strategy in place," Monsanto Chairman Hugh Grant said in a statement.
The company confirmed its earnings guidance for the 2014 fiscal year, saying it expects to earn $5.00 to $5.20 a share. Full-year earnings, on an as-reported basis, is expected to range between $5.02 to $5.22 per share.
Monsanto officials reaffirmed free cash flow in the range of $600 million to $800 million for 2014.
The company said it notched a record 29 "phase advancements" across several research and development platforms, and signed a deal with a large U.S. agricultural retail distributor to expand its new precision farming system products.
Net sales grew to $3.14 billion from $2.94 billion a year ago, even as sales of corn seeds and specialized genetic traits for corn fell 7 percent to $1.05 billion.
Sales of cotton seeds and traits slumped 26 percent to $137 million, but soybean sales surged 16 percent to $267 million.
In its agricultural productivity segment, which includes Roundup herbicide, sales jumped 24 percent to $1.5 billion in the quarter.
Monsanto said it earned a total of $373 million in the quarter ended Nov. 30, up from $349 million a year earlier.
The profit amounted to 67 cents a share from continuing operations, up from 62 cents a year ago. Analysts expected 64 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
On a net basis, the company earned 69 cents a share, up from 63 cents a year earlier.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bernadette Baum)