Feed withdrawal (FW) is a frequent issue in open outdoor feedlot systems, where unexpected circumstances can limit the animals’ access to food. The relationship among fasting period, animal behaviour during feed reintroduction (FR) and acidosis occurrence has not been completely elucidated. Twenty steers fitted with rumen catheters were fed a high-concentrate diet (concentrate : forage ratio 85 : 15) and were challenged by a protocol of FW followed by FR. The animals were randomly assigned to one of the four treatments: FW for 12 h (T12), 24 h (T24), 36 h (T36) or no FW (control group) followed by FR. The steers’ behaviour, ruminal chemistry, structure of the ruminal microbial community, blood enzymes and metabolites and ruminal acidosis status were assessed. Animal behaviour was affected by the FW–FR challenge ( P < 0.05). Steers from the T12, T24 and T36 treatments showed a higher ingestion rate and a lower frequency of rumination. Although all animals were suspected to have sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA) prior to treatment, a severe case of transient SARA arose after FR in the T12, T24 and T36 groups. The ruminal pH remained below the threshold adopted for SARA diagnosis ( pH value = 5.6) for more than three consecutive hours (24, 7 and 19 h in the T12, T24 and T36 treatments, respectively). The FW–FR challenge did not induce clinical acute ruminal acidosis even though steers from the T36 treatment presented ruminal pH values that were consistent with this metabolic disorder (pH threshold for acute acidosis = 5.2). Total mixed ration reintroduction after the withdrawal period reactivated ruminal fermentation as reflected by changes in the fermentation end-products. Ruminal lactic acid accumulation in steers from the T24 and T36 treatments probably led to the reduction of pH in these groups. Both the FW and the FR phases may have altered the structure of the ruminal microbiota community. Whereas fibrolytic bacterial groups decreased relative abundance in the restricted animals, both lactic acid producer and utiliser bacterial groups increased ( P < 0.05). The results demonstrated a synchronisation between Streptococcus (lactate producer) and Megasphaera (lactate utiliser), as the relative abundance of both groups increased, suggesting that bacterial resilience may be central for preventing the onset of metabolic disturbances such as ruminal acidosis. A long-FW period (36 h) produced rumen pH reductions well below and lactic acid concentration increased well above the accepted thresholds for acute acidosis without any perceptible clinical signs.