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The transfer of ingested alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA) determines the nutritional quality of milk, but the factors determining this transfer are unclear. The present experiment investigated the influence of roughage to concentrate proportions and the effect of concentrate types on milk fat composition. Respectively, six lactating dairy cows were fed one of three isoenergetic (5.4+/-0.05 MJ net energy for lactation/kg dry matter; DM) and isonitrogenous (215+/-3.5 g crude protein/kg DM) diets, consisting of ryegrass hay only (33 g fatty acids/kg DM; ALA-rich, no concentrate), maize (straw, whole maize pellets and gluten; 36 g fatty acids/kg DM; LA-rich; 560 g concentrate/kg DM), or barley (straw and grain plus soybean meal; 19 g fatty acids/kg DM; LA-rich; 540 g concentrate/kg DM). The fatty acid composition of feeds and resulting milk fat were determined by gas chromatography. The ALA concentration in milk fat was highest (P<0.001) with the hay-diet, but the proportionate transfer of ALA from diet to milk was lower (P<0.001) than with the maize- or barley-diets. The LA concentration in milk fat was highest with the maize-diet (P<0.05, compared with hay) but relative transfer rate was lower (P=0.01). The transfer rates of ALA and LA were reciprocal to the intake of individual fatty acids which thus contributed more to milk fat composition than did roughage to concentrate proportions. The amount of trans-11 18:1 in milk fat was lowest with the barley-diet (P<0.001) and depended on the sum of ALA and LA consumed. The milk fat concentration of cis-9, trans-11 18:2 (rumenic acid) was more effectively promoted by increasing dietary LA (maize) than ALA (hay). Amounts of 18:0 secreted in milk were four (maize) to seven (hay) times higher than the amounts ingested. This was suggestive of a partial inhibition of biohydrogenation in the maize-diet, possibly caused by the high dietary LA level.