Metal Gone Missing? Use A Metal Detector, Magnetic Sweeper

You’d be surprised how easy it is to lose small bits of metal on a farm. Fortunately, a metal detector, a magnetic sweeper or both can help you find them.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

You’d be surprised how easy it is to lose small bits of metal on a farm. Nuts, bolts, nails, screws, wires, drill bits … the list goes on and on. Finding them is the tricky part. Losing small pieces of metal can range from annoying (you lose a washer in the grass) to problematic (when the nut works loose from a hitch ball and it falls off somewhere in a 5-acre field) to dangerous (when the demolition of an old barn leaves nails scattered around your farmyard).

You might say, “I won’t be careless enough to lose pieces of metal like that,” but it happens to everyone and is part of farm life. You might be minding your own business one day, adjusting the height of a hay rake, when piiiiiiiiing!!! You remove a nut and a compressed spring sends an important washer careening who-knows-how-far across the yard. Been there, done that.

Fortunately, farmers have options for recovering lost metal items. Depending on the specifics, you can try a metal detector, a magnetic sweeper, or both.

A metal detector uses coils of wire to, well, detect metal. When sweeping it back and forth across the ground, the machine will give an alert when it passes over metal.

A magnetic sweeper is much simpler, using a strong magnet to attract and pick up pieces of metal. Often the magnetic sweeper will be installed on wheels so it’s easy to roll back and forth across the ground.

Both tools have their uses. Let’s explore their pros and cons.

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Magnetic Sweeper

A magnetic sweeper is a quick and easy way to pick up pieces of metal scattered across the ground. Spill a jar of screws? The sweeper will pick them right up, saving you from crawling around on your hands and knees, and making sure you’ve plucked every one out of the grass.

But a magnetic sweeper isn’t flawless. Not all types of metal are attracted to magnets. You’ll be good to go picking up iron and steel, but copper and aluminum will be disappointing. And if the lost pieces of metal have become trapped in yard thatch or tall grass, the magnet might not be strong enough to pull them out.

Metal Detector

A metal detector is an awesome way to find lost pieces of metal. I can attest, I’ve gone on just-for-fun “treasure hunts” around my farm with a relatively inexpensive metal detector, and it has turned up all sorts of relics inadvertently left around by my family and by past farm occupants: fencing staples, nails, pieces of welded wire and barbed wire, hunks of metal evidently broken off old farm machines and more.

A metal detector will locate a wider variety of metals than a magnetic sweeper, and it will find the metal even in tall grass or when the metal is buried in the ground. But unlike a magnetic sweeper, it won’t pick up the metal for you, so once you’ve nailed down the right vicinity (“It’s beeping over this spot!”), you’ll have to get down on your hands and knees to find and pick up the metal yourself.

The good news is, both magnetic sweepers and metal detectors save time and effort when you’ve lost small pieces of metal on your farm. They’ve come to the rescue countless times for me, so why not add both to your toolbox? There will likely be many occasions when you’ll be thankful to have them.

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