US dairy giant Dean Foods has reported a sharp rise in quarterly earnings helped by acquisitions and higher sales.

The company posted earnings of US$86.5m, or 54 cents per share, for the fourth quarter to 31 December, compared to $63.1m, or 42 cents per share, in the year-ago period.

Net sales for the fourth quarter totalled $2.5bn, an increase of 12% over the fourth quarter of 2002, which the company attributed primarily to higher selling prices, boosted to offset higher raw material costs, increased volumes at White Wave and the acquisitions of Melody Farms and Kohler Mix Specialties.

Operating income in the fourth quarter rose to $183.7m from $172.2m in the fourth quarter of 2002.

Looking ahead, CEO Gregg Engles said the company was committed to increasing shareholder value.

"In 2004, we will continue to rationalise, streamline and coordinate our operations, particularly in manufacturing and distribution, with the goal of maximizing efficiency and driving branded growth. We will also continue our efforts to build our portfolio of branded products by leveraging the experience we have gained to date and focusing our resources on our biggest, most successful brands, including Silk and Horizon Organic, our brands focused on health and wellness," Engles said.