Undercover video disclosure of calves being beaten to death at a West Texas calf ranch has prompted a discussion of proper euthanasia techniques.

The owner of E6 Cattle Co. in Hart, Texas, where the undercover video was shot, explains that the calves were being euthanized because of frostbite.

“These calves had been exposed to frostbite and were losing limbs, toes, from the cold… it was an extreme situation because of the weather,” E6 Cattle Co. owner Kirt Espenson told broadcaster Trent Loos last week. To hear the entire interview, click here.

Espenson says employees had a .22 rifle for euthanizing the calves. But employees are shown using hammers and pick axes instead.

That prompts the question, Is it better to use a rifle or a penetrating captive bolt gun?

The National Dairy FARM Program Animal Care Manual  recommends a penetrating captive bolt gun when euthanizing calves. “Barbiturate overdosing also works well, but legal restrictions must be followed,” the manual says.  

Jan Shearer, of the veterinary medicine faculty at Iowa State University and a leading authority on humane euthanasia in cattle, says euthanasia of calves may be conducted by use of an anesthetic overdose, gunshot or captive bolt.

It’s important to make the distinction between penetrating and non-penetrating captive bolts. When working with older calves and adult cattle, only penetrating captive bolt guns should be used, Shearer says.

A well-placed penetrating captive bolt is generally fatal to calves, Shearer points out. A non-penetrating device, on the other hand, will cause unconsciousness, but death is not certain without a secondary kill step, Shearer adds.

Regardless of which captive bolt device is used — again, only penetrating captive bolt guns should be used on older calves — a secondary step to ensure death is recommended. Secondary steps include exsanguination (bleeding out) or injection of a saturated solution of potassium chloride.  

Even with a gunshot, a secondary kill step is sometimes necessary, Shearer says. 

Shearer explains the different methods here.