BALTIMORE ( Stockpickr) -- As companies continue to share their record cash reserves with shareholders in this volatile market, it's going to be crucial for investors to seek out quality rather than quantity.

The dividends are continuing to slow to a trickle at the tail end of earnings season, as the last remaining companies planning on hiking their cash payouts to shareholders make announcements to Wall Street. In the last two weeks, only 17 stocks with a market capitalization of $1 billion or more announced that they were increasing their dividends -- that's down from 26 firms in the week ended two weeks ago and 35 the previous week.

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When stocks move higher, as they certainly have this week, investors tend to forget about dividend payers. But that's a big mistake -- over the last 36 years, dividend stocksoutperformed the rest of the S&P 500 by 2.5% annually, and they outperformed nonpayers by nearly 8% every year, all while paying out cash to their shareholders, according to data compiled by Ned Davis Research.

The numbers are even more compelling when looking at companies that consistently increase their payouts.

That's why we pay close attention to the firms that are shoveling more corporate cash to shareholders each week. With that, here's a look at seven of the stocks that hiked payouts in the last week.

Disney

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Media giant Disney ( DIS) has had a fairly rough year in 2011 in spite of otherwise strong fundamental performance. Shares of the $65 billion firm have slid more than 4% on the year, underperforming the S&P's already unmoving returns year-to-date.

Even though Disney's 1.7% dividend payout hardly qualifies the company as a core dividend holding, this company is a good example of quality over quantity of dividends.

Disney owns some of the most valuable intellectual property in the entertainment industry. Characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh built the company from its early days, and newer brands, including ESPN, are helping to deliver continued growth for the firm.

For years, Disney has eschewed its legacy animation business, instead focusing resources on network TV assets such as ESPN (which generates 75% of the consolidated firm's cable network revenue). That changed with the acquisition of Pixar in 2006, a move that pushed Disney back toward box office sales and original characters that could be used across the firm as the basis for merchandise or theme park rides.

Financially, Disney is in strong financial shape. The firm carries a reasonable debt load and plenty of balance sheet liquidity. This week, management announced a 50% dividend increase, bringing the firm's annual dividend payout to 60 cents per share.

While income generation may be muted for Disney investors, now's a good time to add a quality name to your portfolio at a discount price.

Disney, one of TheStreet Ratings' top-rated media stocks, is one of the top holdings of Renaissance Technologies, which increased its position in the stock by 386% to 3.4 million shares in the third quarter.

Brown-Forman

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Wine and spirits maker Brown-Forman ( BF.B) is the firm behind a well-known portfolio of brands that includes Jack Daniel's, Southern Comfort and Finlandia, premium liquor brands that make up the majority of Brown-Forman's annual sales and are able to generate net margins in the double digits.

Management recently announced a 9.4% dividend increase, bringing its payout to 35 cents per quarter, a 1.76% yield.

While the firm's yield may not sound high, that's thanks in part to the strong performance shares have been showing investors in the last few years. In fact, Brown-Forman has paid out a dividend for more than 64 consecutive years -- and increased its payout the last 25 of those years.

As an alcoholic beverage company, Brown-Forman benefits from some of the upside that other "sin stocks" enjoy, namely high customer stickiness and some degree of recession resistance. That coupled with a net cash balance sheet position should keep investors drinking what BF.B is pouring in 2012.

Union Pacific

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As the largest railroad in North America, Union Pacific ( UNP) benefits in a big way from the increased costs of over-the-road shipping. In general, rail shipping costs around one-fourth as much as trucking does per ton shipped, a cost advantage that typically sends customers setting aside the convenience factor of truck freight once fuel prices get past a certain point.

Rail carriers have transformed their industry in recent years, improving operating efficiency and profitability as freight shipping competition grew more difficult. Union Pacific has been no exception: The firm's operating ratios are currently as high as they've ever been. That means that each mile traveled on UNP's 32,000 miles of track in the Western U.S. contributes a bigger chunk to the firm's bottom line than ever before.

Union Pacific has considerable exposure to commodity freight, including produce and coal. The relative recession-resistance of that product mix helps to provide stable top-line numbers.

Last week, UNP announced a 26.32% dividend increase, bringing its total yield to 2.3% at current price levels. For investors looking for stable transportation exposure, UNP is a solid core income holding.

UNP, one of TheStreet Ratings' top-rated railroad stocks, is one of the top holdings at Steven Cohen's SAC Capital.

Nike

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Nike ( NKE) is another name that's hiking its dividends. The apparel giant increased its payout by 16.13% on Nov. 17, bringing the firm's yield to 1.5%.

With annual sales of more than $20 billion, Nike is the standard bearer in the athletic apparel business, positioning that grants the firm pricing power that smaller peers don't enjoy. Nike is the largest supplier by far for major retailers such as Foot Locker ( FL) and Finish Line ( FINL), and a must-have brand for most other shoe retailers' shelves. As such, the company is able to squeeze out double-digit margins on a consistent basis.

Nike's size has been a problem of late, stifling growth as the firm looks to increase its scale in already-saturated markets. While Nike already has international reach, the firm's products are still underrepresented in the emerging markets, where a growing consumer class is suddenly eager to buy into the swoosh brand.

Emerging and developing markets currently offer the most attractive growth story for Nike, particularly as smaller competitors remain focused on stealing Nike's share in the West.

I also recently featured Nike in " 5 Retail Stocks to Trade for Gains."

National Oilwell Varco

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Drilling equipment supplier National Oilwell Varco ( NOV) provides energy companies with the tools and consumable products they need to extract oil and gas from the ground. As energy prices slowly ratchet higher, an aging rig fleet is providing a long-term growth catalyst for NOV -- the firm should be able to capture a large chunk of the money energy firms spend on retooling and upgrading their drilling equipment.

The company announced a 9.09% dividend hike, bringing its quarterly payout to 12 cents per share.

While rising energy prices could speed up NOV's revenue stream, upgrades to the world's rig fleet are inevitable. Even if oil prices fail to make new highs in the next several years, energy companies will still need to upgrade their drilling rigs in order to extract oil at favorable costs -- either way you slice it, NOV is poised for growth in the long-term.

Clearly, with a dividend yield of 0.67%, NOV isn't the best way to generate income in the energy sector. That said, with a reasonably low valuation and a growth story that stacks up, investors shouldn't ignore this stock.

Renaissance Technologies certainly isn't ignoring NOV; it initiated a 2 million-share stake in the stock in the third quarter. The stock also shows up in Ken Fisher's portfolio, with a 7.1 million-share position.

ACE

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When major corporations need to protect themselves against catastrophic risks, they turn to ACE ( ACE). Around 90% of ACE's revenues come from its commercial property-casualty insurance line, a business with high barriers to entry for the otherwise commoditized insurance industry. Because few insurers can offer the scale that ACE offers, the company is able to underwrite profitable policies with reduced competition.

While ACE's industry positioning is certainly enviable, its risk management practices haven't been in recent years. Like other insurance companies, ACE takes the premiums it receives from customers and invests them in the market. As a result of risky investments, though, ACE took larger losses than most peers during the financial crisis.

While the firm's portfolios have largely bounced back, the drawdown will hopefully lead to better risk management practices going forward.

The firm's recent 34.3% dividend increase brings its yield up to 2.74% at current price levels.

Becton Dickinson

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$16 billion medical supply firm Becton Dickinson ( BDX), one of the highest-yielding health services stocks, hiked its dividend by 9.76% last week, bringing its quarterly payout to 45 cents per share. The firm develops, complex high-margin medical equipment, including oncology and pathology diagnostic devices, but the its bread and butter is in basic surgical instruments such as needles, syringes and scalpels.

The firm's exposure to staid (even boring) surgical instruments has given Becton some protection from economic conditions in the past, something that can't be said for peers who only develop high-tech, hit-or-miss medical devices. Double-digit margins and ample balance sheet liquidity should keep this firm returning value to shareholders in the form of cash dividends.

To see these dividend plays in action, check out the Dividend Stocks for the Week portfolio on Stockpickr.

And if you haven't already done so, join Stockpickr today to create your own dividend portfolio.

-- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.

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At the time of publication, author had no positions in stocks mentioned.

Jonas Elmerraji is the editor and portfolio manager of the Rhino Stock Report, a free investment advisory that returned 15% in 2008. He is a contributor to numerous financial outlets, including Forbes and Investopedia, and has been featured in Investor's Business Daily, in Consumer's Digest and on MSNBC.com.

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