The effects of two concentrations of disodium malate on the in vitro fermentation of three substrates differing in their forage: concentrate ratio (0·8: 0·2, 0·5: 0·5 and 0·2: 0·8; g/g dry matter; low-, medium- and high-concentrate substrates, respectively) by rumen micro-organisms were studied using batch cultures. Rumen contents were collected from four Merino sheep offered lucerne hay ad libitum and supplemented daily with 400 g concentrate. Disodium malate was added to the incubation bottles to achieve final concentrations of 0, 4 and 8 mmol/l malate and 15N was used as a microbial marker. Gas production was measured at regular intervals from 0 to 120 h of incubation to study fermentation kinetics. When gas production values were corrected for gas released from added malate, no effects (P > 0·05) of malate were detected for any of the estimated gas production parameters. In 17-h incubations, the final pH and total volatile fatty acid (VFA) production were increased (P < 0·001) by the addition of malate, but no changes (P > 0·05) were detected in the final amounts of ammonia-N and lactate. When net VFA productions were corrected for the amount of VFA produced from malate fermentation itself, adding malate did not affect (P > 0·05) the production of acetate, propionate and total VFA. Malate reduced methane (CH4) production by proportionately 0·058, 0·013 and 0·054 for the low-, medium- and high-concentrate substrates, respectively. Adding malate to batch cultures increased (P < 0·01) rumen microbial growth (mean values of 16·6, 18·3 and 18·4 mg of microbial N for malate at 0, 4 and 8 mmol/l, respectively), but did not affect (P > 0·05) its efficiency of growth (55·5, 56·7 and 54·3 mg of microbial N per g of organic matter apparently fermented for malate at 0, 4 and 8 mmol/l, respectively). There were no interactions (P > 0·05) malate × substrate for any of the measured variables, and no differences (P > 0·05) in pH, CH4 production and microbial growth were found between malate at 4 and 8 mmol/l. The results indicate that malate had a beneficial effect on in vitro rumen fermentation of substrates by increasing VFA production and microbial growth, and that only subtle differences in the effects of malate were observed between substrates. Most of the observed effects, however, seem to be due to fermentation of malate itself.