FFA member represents cattle industry well, touting important facts about the uses of livestock manure for energy.

As bovines chorused in the background, Gilmer High School junior Bethany Nolan took top honors Monday in the rodeo’s oratory contest with a speech extolling the energy-generating merits of cow poop.

The 16-year-old FFA member’s speech, The Sweet Smell of Success, brought her a $700 cash prize and an honorary felt banner. She was one of seven finalists in the contest’s senior division.

Margaret McCullough, an FFA member from the Denton County hamlet of Aubrey, won first place in the junior division. One of six contenders in the 9- to 13-year-old finals, she won with a speech lambasting the media for uncritically touting the superiority of organic cotton.

The finalists were chosen from a field of 80 contestants in competition on Sunday, contest superintendent Mitzi Smith said.

Bethany’s speech detailed the successful efforts of a California dairy farmer in turning a liability — tons of manure generated by his 270-cow herd — into an energy asset. By processing the waste in a methane digester, Bethany told the judges, the farmer generated enough electricity to save $6,000 a year.

“Nothing,” she said, “will go unused.”

Bethany noted that a cow can generate 120 pounds of manure a day — waste that can pollute surface water and groundwater with dangerous bacteria and contribute to global warming by exuding methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

After receiving her award, Bethany said she discovered the virtues of cow manure while paging through magazines with her FFA adviser. “It was either this or a speech about steak. No one would expect a little girl to do a speech about cow manure.”

Junior winner’s speech

Margaret’s speech argued that the media naively accepted claims regarding the superiority of organic cotton over fiber conventionally produced with pesticides and artificial fertilizer. Margaret contended that organic cotton is primarily produced in Vietnam, India and Pakistan; its growth may actually be harmful to useful insects; and that it may, ultimately, be colored by synthetic dyes.

Citing the farming practices of her grandfather, she maintained that current “industrial” methods of cotton farming are less destructive to the environment than those of the past.

Speakers, each addressing a different aspect of agriculture, were limited to eight minutes.

Hillsboro lawyer David Waggoner, one of three judges, told the contestants he was “pleasantly surprised” by the quality of their entries.

“I knew they would be good,” he said. “But they far exceeded my expectations. They were better than good. You did a lot of hard work on research. It was research well-done.”

Bethany, who also competed in last year’s contest, said she hopes to enter Texas A&M University and major in agricultural communication or agricultural leadership.

To get in contact with journalist Allan Turner, emal at, allan.turner@chron.com. For related articles, link to the Houston Chronicle.