Our neighbor told my wife and me how she stopped her fourth-grader as she was pulling a bottle cap out of their kitchen trash can, saying, “Honey, put that back. It’s trash.” The little girl, schooled on recycling, smiled and said, “Mama, metal’s never trash.” That’s certainly true. I repeat that story every time my wife raises an eyebrow at my sprawling piles of trash … I mean, scrap metal.
I’m not above picking up scrap fencing and other metal off the curb. And I always take a look into construction site dumpsters. One builder had tossed a heavy, broken nail gun that was easily worth $15 at a scrap metal yard.
Every bit of metal from my scavenging trips and building projects—stripped screws, sheet metal, broken tools, worn saw blades, excess pipe—gets tossed into black, 10-gallon nursery pots by the back gate. That includes household metal such as jar lids, out-of-date keys and, of course, bottle caps. Because the pot has drainage holes, I don’t have to worry about it filling with rainwater. And because it’s black, it’s not very eye-catching—other than to my wife.
But once or twice a year, I gather enough metal in pots and piles to justify a quick trip to the scrap metal yard (that happens to be near a favorite BBQ lunch place). There, I sell it all for as little as about $3 one time (the price of steel was down that day) and another time for more than $160 when I had a load of scrap copper and aluminum.
The little girl is right. Metal isn’t trash anymore. In addition to recycling it at the scrap yard, a lot of metal scraps can be repurposed for use in chicken coops and the garden. Here are a few examples.
Rack ’em Up
One part of our vegetable garden that always gets compliments is our trellis system for cucumbers. We use colorful metal racks that we get cheap from what we call junk-tique stores. These are racks from retail stores that have closed. They are a 2-dimensional mesh with openings about 2-by-2 inches. We have them in a variety of colors: red, yellow, black and green.
In the store, the racks stand vertically, and items for sale would be suspended from them. But when a store closes, everything must go, including display racks. And then we get them for a couple bucks apiece.
In the off season, I store them outside in the weather. In the garden, I hammer a couple of 4-foot lengths of rebar into the ground to support the racks. Then I tie rack and rebar together with short lengths of tie wire or jute. I’ve even installed a couple of these racks permanently to frame a gate in our narrow side yard.
A couple of hinges scavenged from a fence and gate removal for a gardening client of mine found their calling when I needed to install a chicken-sized gate between the hen pen and a chunnel (short for “chicken tunnel,” of course). This new gate and chunnel would allow the hens access to a separate fenced area for foraging bugs and seeds, safe from predators. I framed the chunnel gate with scraps of lumber and snipped out the fence wire to make an opening.
One side of the hinge was too long for the space, so I placed each hinge on a granite block, held one side with channel locks and hammered the other end of the hinge until it bent over on itself and was the right size for this spot.
Perhaps I was inspired by a shirt my wife had given me that read: “The Handyman’s Rule: Cut to Fit. Beat into Place.”
I’ve also used scraps of copper roofing left over from a project—but you might find them on nearby job sites—to make hinges. Some might call these “country” hinges for their reuse of something that would otherwise be scrap.
Because copper is flexible, you can cut a strip about 2-by-4 inches, then predrill four holes near the corners and attach the strip to function as a hinge. I did this on our nest box, and it still works great 10 years later.
Most popular breeds of chickens in the United States were bred in northern climates and are well adapted to winter weather. Here in the South, where I live, the big threat is from heat building up in the coop. So coops need ventilation. Every gable and window in our coop has an opening that is covered by various scraps of metal screen. Air can flow through, but vermin and predators can’t.
On my metal scrap yard jaunts I always check out the nicer pieces of metal—chains, pipe, fencing—that the scrap dealer sets aside to resell. There I bought a small roll of brass screen—the kind used to make fireplace screens. It looks good, has a fine mesh, can stand up to the weather and was cheap.
That roll lived in my garage for years before I found a use for it on our coop. I cut square sections of the brass screen to cover the openings. I cut it with metal snips and screwed it into place with brass screws from the hardware store. I could use regular steel screws, but with enough moisture, two kinds of metal in contact with each other creates corrosion.
Because the openings in the mesh were smaller than the heads of the screws, I didn’t need to use washers. But if you’re using a mesh with wider openings, such as hardware cloth—as in the photo—you’ll want to buy some washers to slip over the screws and pin the mesh in place.
Over many years I have picked up miles of leftover fence wire from the curbside. Most of it gets reused, sold at the scrap yard or I pass it on to a friend for a project. At home, I use a variety of scavenged fence wire to keep critters from digging under the fence into our chicken run.
To stop critters from tunneling under your fence, some “experts” mistakenly recommend digging a trench 1 to 2 feet deep into which you bury the bottom of your fence. The problem with this “solution” is that even galvanized fencing in the ground will rust down to nothing in 5 to 10 years (depending on moisture levels).
Galvanized fencing is steel wire coated with a gray layer of the metal zinc. In the open air, this zinc layer will keep steel from rusting. But when a galvanized fence is in close contact with the ground, the organic acids in the soil oxidize the zinc. This leaves steel fencing to rust away, exposing your hens to tunneling predators.
A better defense is to lay an apron of fence wire on the ground at the base of the fence. You only need about a 2-foot tall section of fence. Cut 4- or 5-feet-tall fencing in half with metal snips, bolt cutter or a hand tool (called a side cutter).
With the 2-foot section of apron fence laid flat on the ground and your foot on it, bend the top 6 or 8 inches of the fence upright.
The upright section goes up against the outside base of the fence. Use tie wire to attach the apron fence to the run fence.
The remainder of the apron fence laying flat on the ground extends about 12 to 18 inches out from the fence. It should also be pinned to the ground with landscape staples or by bending some of the fence wire to go into the ground.
Cover it with mulch or let grass grow up through it. Continue this all the way around the base of your chicken run. At the gate lay fencing flat on the ground or put down a flagstone to frustrate diggers.
When a predator comes up to the fence, they’ll try to dig right next to it but will be foiled by your apron fencing. If the predator was really smart, they would back up a couple of feet and dig a tunnel under your apron fence to get to your hens. Instead, they’ll go explore your neighbor’s coop.
Eventually, the apron fence will rust away. But it’ll be easier to replace than fencing buried under the ground which will also corrode to nothing. And if you’ve scavenged some fencing, it won’t cost you anything. Because metal is never trash! This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.