New Zealand unexpectedly posted a trade surplus last month as exports rose more than forecast, with higher shipments of wood, dairy and fruit.

Statistics New Zealand said the country had a merchandise trade surplus of $8.1 million in January, compared with expectations for a $245.5 million deficit in a Reuters poll of economists -- the first monthly surplus since May.

Exports rose 5.9 per cent to $3.9 billion from the year earlier month, ahead of the $3.74 billion forecast by economists, while imports rose 7.2 per cent to $3.89 billion, also higher than the $3.87 billion expected.

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Forestry exports led the gains, increasing 22 per cent to $244 million from the year earlier, while dairy exports advanced 3.7 per cent to $1.22 billion and fruit jumped 32 per cent to $81 million as cherry exports surged 51 per cent to a record $55 million.

"The export value rise highlights the export sector strength outside of the struggling dairy sector. Of the 10 largest export categories, eight recorded higher values over the January 2016 year compared to the year to January 2015," said ASB Bank rural economist Nathan Penny.

China remained the country's top export destination in January, with exports up 25 per cent to $737 million, led by a rise in milk powder, butter, cheese, wool and cherries.

Exports to Australia, the second-largest market, advanced 11 per cent to $581 million, driven by gains in food preparations for infant use, paper and paperboard, milk powder, butter and cheese.

However, exports to the US, the third-largest market, slipped 9.5 per cent to $451 million, as beef fell 33 per cent in value and 23 per cent in volume.

• $8.1m trade surplus in January

• $3.9b exports, up 5.9 per cent

• $3.89b imports, up 7.2 per cent