Deere & Co reported a higher-than-expected third-quarter profit as improved profitability in its core agriculture machinery business helped to offset weakness in construction and forestry equipment.

But the company said it expected to barely break even in the current quarter, sending its shares down more than 4 percent in early trading.

The world's largest maker of tractors and harvesters, which is cutting production in anticipation of lower demand next year, reported a third-quarter profit of $420 million, or 99 cents a share, down from $575.2 million, or $1.32 a share, last year. Sales fell 24 percent to $5.89 billion.

Analysts, on average, had expected the company to report a profit of 56 cents per share on sales of $5.27 billion.

Analyst Eli Lustgarten of Longbow Research called the results a clean beat, although 20 cents of the earnings came from nonoperating items, including a lower tax rate.

Moline, Illinois-based Deere reiterated its forecast for a full-year net profit of approximately $1.1 billion.

Since Deere has already reported earnings of $1.1 billion for the first nine months of the year, the guidance implied a break-even or possibly even a marginally unprofitable fiscal fourth quarter.

They're burying the fourth quarter with these production cuts, Lustgarten said. And so their guidance is for a marginally break-even quarter.

Analysts had expected Deere to report a fourth-quarter profit of 33 cents a share, according to Reuters Estimates.

Deere also cut its forecast for corn prices for the 2009-2010 crop year to $3.40 a bushel, down from a previous forecast of $3.80. That's up from its current price of about $3.12 a bushel but down 59 percent from the record highs it touched last summer.

Since farm equipment purchases are highly correlated with crop prices and the cash receipts they represent, that was likely to translate into less demand for the tractors and harvesters produced by Deere and its top rivals, Fiat Spa subsidiary CNH Global NV and Agco Corp
.

With demand from farmers easing, that puts added pressure on Deere's construction and forestry unit, which competes with Caterpillar Inc , Komatsu Ltd <6301.T> and Terex Corp and has seen demand drop sharply as a result of the worldwide downturn in building.

Deere shares fell about 4.3 percent, or $1.96, to $43.13 in early New York Stock Exchange trading.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher, editing by Ted Kerr and Maureen Bavdek)