Investors in farming machinery giant Deere & Company (DE 0.32%) will be interested in the latest crop production and price forecasts from the United States Department of Agriculture. Let's dig into the numbers from the USDA crop production report and, in doing so, compare its forecasts with Deere & Company's expectations. Might Deere's guidance for 2015 have been conservative?

Source: Deere & Company

Deere & Company's forecasts
Before delving into the details of the USDA reports, let's take a look at Deere's guidance. In a nutshell, Deere's management is forecasting a 15% drop in net sales in 2015. Net sales in its core agriculture and turf segment are expected to be down 20%, with a whopping decline of 25%-30% forecast for its U.S. and Canada retail sales within the segment. The reason? Crop prices, and therefore farmers' incomes, are expected to decline in 2015 -- not good news for anyone selling to the farming industry.

US Corn Farm Price Received Chart

US Corn Farm Price Received data by YCharts.

However, Deere's forecasts may prove to be conservative. For example, AGCO Corporation forecasts a sales decline of only 12%-14% in 2015. Moreover, the recent USDA reports suggest that Deere's forecasts might prove to be a little too pessimistic -- suggesting some upside for Deere in 2015. After all, Deere's management is surely basing its sales forecasts on its assumptions for crop pricing and farmers' income in 2015.

Acres harvested, yield per acre, and price
First, let's compare Deere's forecast for acres harvested versus the most recent USDA forecast. Simply put, a large amount of harvested acreage usually means a large supply -- bearish for crop prices and bad for Deere.

 CropDeere's forecast USDA forecast 
 Corn  83.8  83.1
 Wheat  46.4  46.4
 Soybeans  84.1  83.1
 Cotton  10.2  9.7

Sources: Deere & Company presentations, National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA. All figures are in millions of acres harvested for 2014/2015.

In general, the USDA's forecasts look a little more bullish (the numbers are lower, suggesting lower supply) than Deere's estimates. Of course, harvested acreage is only part of the story. Crop yields have been very strong (helping create high supply) in recent years, partly because of exceptional weather. However, Deere's management believes that just "normal" weather in 2015/2016 could see crop prices rise, as crop yields might not be as strong as in recent years.

Here is Deere's 2014/2015 crop yield forecasts versus the current USDA estimates. A lower number implies lower supply, so crop prices might be expected to rise -- usually good news for Deere if accompanied by a rise in farmers' income.

 CropDeere's forecast  USDA's forecast
Corn  171.7  171
Wheat  44  42.6
Soybeans  46.6  47.8
Cotton 775 795

Source: Deere & Co presentations, National Agriculture Statistics Service, USDA. Bushels per acre, except cotton, which is pounds per acre.

Deere's forecasts for corn and wheat yields are a bit higher than the current USDA estimates -- indicating that Deere expects more corn and wheat supply than the USDA does. So, what does it all mean for the (all-important) price forecasts?

Price forecasting is a complex mix of factors such as acreage harvested, yield, demand, stocks in storage, end demand, etc. -- much of which is contingent on the weather. Indeed, predicting crop prices has never been easy, and it's definitely not an exact science. With that said, the latest USDA crop price forecasts suggest an improving outlook for crop prices. The USDA increased its U.S. price forecast for each crop, with the exception of cotton (flat).

 CropDeere's Forecast Current USDA forecast Previous USDA Forecast Deere vs. Current USDA Midpoint 
Corn   $3.45  $3.20-$3.80  $3.35-$3.95  Lower by 5.5%
Wheat  $5.85  $5.80-$6.20  $5.90-$6.30  Lower by 4.1%
Soybeans  $9.25  $9-$11  $9.45-$10.95  Lower by 9.3%
Cotton  $0.65  $0.59-$0.64  $0.595-$0.635  Higher by 5.7%

Source: Deere & Co Presentations, National Agriculture Statistics Service, USDA. Dollars per bushel, except cotton, which is dollars per pound

Moreover, readers should note that Deere's corn price forecast is at the low end of the USDA range. Meanwhile, Deere's wheat and soybeans price forecasts are below the bottom end of the USDA ranges, with only Deere's cotton price forecast exceeding the USDA figure.

What does it mean for Deere investors?
All told, the latest USDA data looks positive across the board for Deere investors. First, the USDA increased its U.S. price predictions for corn, wheat, and soybeans -- good news for farmers and Deere. Second, Deere's U.S. crop pricing assumptions look light compared to the USDA's. Since Deere's management is almost certainly using its price assumptions to produce its agricultural machinery forecast, investors have cause to think that Deere's sales assumptions for 2015 could be a little too conservative.