The current study was designed to determine the effect of roughage to concentrate ratio (R : C) on rumen pH, fermentation and bacterial population in dairy steers. Four rumen fistulated dairy steers (170±20 kg) were randomly assigned according to a 4×4 Latin square design, in which the steers were fed with four dietary treatments with different R : C ratios of 0·8 : 0·2, 0·6 : 0·4, 0·4 : 0·6 and 0·2 : 0·8, respectively. All animals were kept in individual pens and received feed according to the respective R : C ratios at 0·025 body weight (BW)/d; urea-treated rice straw (prepared using 3·5 kg urea+100 kg water sprayed onto 100 kg of rice straw) was used as a roughage source. The experiment was conducted for four periods of 21 days each. During the first 14 days, feed intake was measured and the animals were then moved to metabolism crates for total urine and faecal collection for 7 days. Total dry matter intake (DMI) was similar among treatments. Energy intake increased as the proportion of concentrate in the diet increased. Apparent digestibilities of dry matter (DM), organic matter (OM) and crude protein (CP) were improved, while neutral detergent fibre (NDF) and acid detergent fibre (ADF) were reduced when the levels of concentrate increased. A decreasing ratio of R : C reduced rumen pH linearly, from 6·4 to 5·9 at 0·2 : 0·8. High levels of concentrate impacted on volatile fatty acids (VFA) molar proportions and decreased acetate (C2) linearly, while propionate (C3) was increased, leading to decreased C2 : C3 ratio. Numbers of protozoa, fungi and proteolytic bacteria were not affected by R : C ratio. Cellulolytic bacteria decreased linearly while amylolytic bacteria increased linearly with 0·60 and 0·80 concentrates. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) based on 16S RNA revealed that Fibrobacter succinogenes numbers were increased when steers were fed with R : C ratio of 0·8 : 0·2. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)-producing bacteria, especially those of Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens, increased linearly with R : C ratios of 0·8 : 0·2 and 0·6 : 0·4, while Megasphaera elsdenii, a lactate-utilizing bacterium and reported producer of trans-10, cis-12 CLA increased linearly with R : C ratio of 0·8 : 0·2. In addition, microbial CP synthesis increased quadratically when steers were fed high levels of concentrate. However, the efficiency microbial N synthesis (EMNS) based on OM, truly digested in the rumen, was not affected by different R : C ratios. From the current study, it can be concluded that roughage to concentrate ratio of 0·4 : 0·6 had positive effects for the creation of healthy rumen (rumen pH and ecology), and improved energy intake and rumen fermentation, particularly propionic acid and microbial protein synthesis, in dairy steers fed urea-treated rice straw as a roughage source.